Viva España!

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jack troughton dec17Journalist and broadcaster Jack Troughton plays ‘Johnny Foreigner’ and casts an eye over Spain and focuses on stories that serve as a gentle reminder he remains an Englishman abroad.

The cat and mouse game of politics played out in the short-lived Republic of Catalonia has given way to another family favourite board game, snakes and ladders; and the independence leaders appear to be on the slippery slope of a giant anaconda.
The Spanish government allowed the Catalan parliament in Barcelona a long lead; Carles Puigdemont and his team rolled the dice, won a highly controversial referendum in October – ruled illegal by Madrid ahead of the vote - and moved forward to land on a snake’s head and whoosh...down, down, deeper and down.

Mr Puigdemont and four colleagues are now in exile in Belgium and facing extradition back to Spain; other leaders have been arrested in Catalonia and now face charges of rebellion, sedition and misuse of public funds. It may not be gunpowder, treason and plot but given the time of year, the 17th Century attempt to unseat James I and his parliament did come to mind.

No one would dare suggest the hundreds of thousands taking to the streets to demonstrate are driven by anything but heart-felt emotion. However, it is also worth remembering there are two sides to this complex story; every march in support of a breakaway flying the flag of an independent Catalonia (incorporating the star of revolutionary Cuba no less), is followed by a counter show of strength, people waving the Spanish flag or the historic banner of the region.

Catalonia, including the beautiful Costa Brava and a number of historic cities, is a huge magnet for visitors. It is a cultural land of plenty, the home of artist Salvador Dali and architect Antoni Gaudi. The capital, Barcelona, is simply a joy to discover and home to one of the world’s most famous football clubs; and then things got messy.

The region has its own language and traditions – Spain, like England was once a country of separate kingdoms – but during the last century was brutally repressed under the fascist regime of General Franco. Come the return of democracy, it became one of the autonomous regions.

However, there an independence movement has slowly crept up to the fore. The call to go it alone has been built on the sense of pride of being a Catalan and living in an area roughly equivalent to a country the size of Belgium. Independence groups believe the region – one of the country’s most affluent - gives too much and receives too little back from Madrid.

Catalonia has a population of about 7.5 million, 16% of the Spanish population live there. Economically, around 25% of Spain’s exports come from the region; Catalonia produces 19% of Spain’s gross domestic product; and 20% of total investment into Spain goes there.

In the run up to the 1st October ballot, polls revealed an apparent equal split between the population in favour of going it alone and those wanting to remain a part of Spain. There were calls for an ‘official’ referendum to serve as a ‘once and for all’ decider; the name Scotland and its own ‘Indyref’ were frequently quoted (Even though as a one in a lifetime vote, Scottish nationalists are now calling for Indyref2).

Madrid was having none of it. The moves towards the ballot were ruled illegal by the Constitutional Court. The referendum was banned but the went ahead in any case – there was a turnout of about 2.2 million, 43% of the electorate and 92% of the votes cast were in favour of independence – loyalists stayed away and sat on their hands.

The declaration of independence was announced, put on ice, and declared again as separatists underlined their mandate from the people. Mr Puigdemont went into exile and Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy dissolved the Catalan parliament putting Madrid in charge of the region. New regional elections are scheduled for 21st December and if not exactly a de facto legal referendum, it is hoped will end what the PM has described as “havoc”.

And to make matters even more complex, it now appears that Spain was hit by ‘fake news’; millions of false social media messages designed to spread disharmony and destabilise. These are alleged to come from Russia in a propaganda war and be part of a determined cyber attack on the West...
but that’s another story.