Legend has it the flag of Catalonia was born from blood. The blood of a man called Wilfred the Hairy, who stories (but not necessarily any historical evidence) claim is the founder of Catalonia. He was injured in war in August of the year 897 and would die there on the battlefield. But not before he ran his four bloodied fingers down a copper shield to create a coat of arms that today is found on the flag that flies so proudly above this region.
When it comes to the pride of Catalonia – and it is undeniable – a crucial step is about to be taken in just a few days’ time that could lead the region down the path to becoming the world’s newest country.
I’ll get to that in just a second, because it’s important to first ask what would Wilfred the Hairy think of it all? After his death in the ninth century he was buried at Santa Maria de Ripoll, the monastery in the town of Ripoll. With its beautiful entrance door and ornately-designed interiors, it is a fitting shrine for the man. For, when he took over the lands around Barcelona, he was trying to build a home outside the influence of the crown, governed by shared ideals.
That brings us nicely back to today and the issue of Catalonian independence, which many would say is trying to do exactly the same thing – more than a thousand years later. The movement to push for Catalonia to secede from Spain and become its own country is gaining pace rapidly. It has, though, moved on from war and blood (we hope). These days it is really about two things: economics and culture… with the two often being intertwined for an advantage in the political argument.
First, the economics. The common complaint of the Catalonians that you’ll hear from many is about tax. It’s essentially about how the profitable and industrious region is subsidising the rest of Spain and not getting enough in return. Those for independence are unhappy about the disparity and think it would make a separation advantageous. Spanish patriots see the issue as a bit more complicated. The same could be said for any capital city or area where natural resources are concentrated. It could be said of Sydney, New York, London… it doesn’t mean separation is justified.
The deeper issue is about identity and that many people in Catalonia don’t see themselves as part of Spain – even more than 500 years after the country was effectively unified. If you talk to people at bars or in restaurants they’ll bristle if you called Spanish and correct you – “I am Catalonian”. It was during the 13th and 14th centuries that the region last effectively worked as a nation state and solidified its character, with the Catalan language taking over from Latin and a unique culture growing under the Counts of Barcelona. They have a long memory around these parts.
Catalonia as a new European country
Independence. It’s been talked about for decades and there have been steps along the way. Throughout all these years the pride in the heritage has not subsided. You can see the flags everywhere you go in Catalonia, the yellow and red stripes, sometimes with a white star on a blue triangle. They’re hanging from windows of apartments in Barcelona, from poles in small towns, and from cars and buses along the roads.
In Barcelona, the capital of the region, a rally in September attracted about 1.5 million people to the streets calling for independence. To put in in context, that is about 20 per cent of the whole region’s population.
Returning to this coming weekend and, more specifically, Sunday. A snap election has been called to choose the President of Catalonia. If, as widely expected, the current leader Artur Mas is re-elected he will use the vote as a mandate to push for independence. It’s a step that many people have been pushing for as there seemed to be an enthusiasm amongst the people when the election was announced during my trip there.
If it even happens, it would be a while off, but Catalonia as its own country is not inconceivable within the context of the European Union. Its economy is roughly the size of Portugal. And, with a population of 7.5 million, it would be bigger than Ireland, Norway, Finland or Denmark. For international comparisons, its population is about the same size as the Australian state of New South Wales or the American state of Virginia.
It’s not clear what the next exact steps will be. Catalan President, Artur Mas, says independence will be put to a vote during his next term f he is re-elected. Although, it’s not something Spain and the current Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy will accept easily. He has said he would stop any official referendum… and there’s even been talk from some national politicians of sending in the army, if necessary.
In Europe, a lot of eyes will be watching the developments from this region in the northeast of Spain this weekend. The Catalan flag may have been drawn with blood – a symbol of the past. But nobody wants that to be the future.
Time Travel Turtle was a guest of the Costa Brava Pirineu de Girona tourism board but the opinions, over-written descriptions and bad jokes are his own.
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