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Why Catalan separatists are in crisis five years after independence vote

The ill-fated referendum of October 1st 2017 unleashed a political crisis from which the separatists have never recovered, and on the eve of the anniversary, Catalonia's pro-independence coalition is at the point of collapse.

Why Catalan separatists are in crisis five years after independence vote
A photo taken on October 1st 2017 shows people sat in Plaza Catalunya square in Barcelona as they wait for the results of a referendum on independence for Catalonia, a vote that was banned by the Spanish government. ON October 1st 2022, Catalonia marks the fifth anniversary of self-determination referendum organised by separatists despite being banned by the courts. (Photo by JOSE JORDAN / AFP)

Josep Lluis Rodríguez has not given up hope of an independent Catalonia. But five years after a banned referendum, he no longer expects anything from the deeply divided separatist leaders in Barcelona.

“Of course there is frustration and anger, because they didn’t do what they should have done,” the 62-year-old former company boss told AFP of the leaders who failed to make good on their separatist promises.

“It’s clear they are no longer openly interested in independence,” he said, standing outside the church in Arenys de Munt just north of Barcelona.

Many Catalan independence flags can be seen fluttering from balconies along the main street in Arenys de Munt, a town of of 9,000 residents which was the first place to hold a symbolic referendum on independence in 2009.

Hundreds of municipalities followed suit, driving a groundswell of pro-independence activism which would reach its climax in the events of October 2017 under the regional government of Carles Puigdemont.

Despite being banned by the Spanish courts, the 2017 referendum organised by the separatist government went ahead but descended into chaos as police moved in to stop it, sparking confrontations marred by violence.

“October 1st was when civil society really came out en masse,” catching the separatist parties by surprise who had not expected such a huge mobilisation in response to their moves towards independence, Rodríguez said.

“It was only later that we realised that they didn’t have a concrete plan, nor structures in place (for achieving independence),” said Rodriguez, an activist with the ANC, the region’s biggest grassroots separatist movement.

Despite the police crackdown, the fact the referendum took place at all was “a great victory for the Catalans”, he said.

And to mark the anniversary this Saturday, he will attend a demonstration in Barcelona bent on securing a new referendum.

“We’re organised and when the time comes, we will mobilise.”

Divided and squabbling

The results of the October 2017 referendum were never independently corroborated, and weeks of confusion followed, culminating in a short-lived symbolic declaration of independence by the Catalan parliament.

That proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back, with Madrid sacking the Catalan government, suspending the region’s autonomy and putting its leaders on trial as it struggled to handle Spain’s worst political crisis in decades.

Despite passions running high over independence, the region itself remains divided, with only 41 percent in favour of separation while 52 percent want to remain in Spain, the latest survey suggested.

But it’s a far cry from the 49 percent who wanted to break away in the October 2017 poll.

Last year, the separatists again won a majority in the regional elections and managed to cobble together a fragile coalition grouping the left-wing ERC and hardline JxC.

But they are sharply at odds over how to achieve independence, with ERC backing a negotiated strategy via dialogue with Madrid, while JxC prefers a confrontational approach given that Spain has ruled out any new referendum.

“The political deadlock is ongoing, the Catalan government is divided and every day they attack each other in the press over a thousand things,” said Joan Botella, a political scientist at Barcelona’s Autonomous University.

“Nobody is suggesting a way forward or how to resolve the conflict.”

Demonstrators hold a banner reading “52%, why the hell did we vote for you ?” and wave Catalan pro-independence “Estelada” flags during a protest marking the “Diada”, the national day of Catalonia, in Barcelona on September 11th 2022. The protest coincides with Catalonia’s national day, or “Diada”, which commemorates the 1714 fall of Barcelona in the War of the Spanish Succession and the region’s subsequent loss of institutions. (Photo by Josep LAGO / AFP)

‘Won’t happen in my lifetime’

Fed up with the impasse, the ANC called people onto the streets for the annual “Diada” march on September 11th with a rallying cry denouncing the politicians and insisting “only the people and civil society can achieve independence”.

The powerful movement has been openly critical of the Catalan government’s dialogue with Madrid, and this year its leader Pere Aragones did not attend the rally.

Police said 150,000 people turned out for the event, the lowest figure in a decade — without counting the two years of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“People feel cheated and frustrated but it doesn’t mean they will stop backing independence,” said Josep Sánchez, mayor of Arenys de Munt, standing next to a small monument by the town hall marking the 2017 referendum.

But shopkeeper Magda Artigas has lost any hope of seeing the emergence of an independent Catalan republic, despite voting for one in successive referendums in 2009, 2014 and 2017.

“I’m already 64, it won’t happen in my lifetime,” she said with a sad smile.

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Spain’s finance chief Calviño to head EU’s investment bank

Spain's Economic Affairs Minister Nadia Calviño, the newly-named European Investment Bank (EIB) chief, is a polyglot who is well-versed in the EU's inner workings and a pragmatist with experience in navigating power struggles.

Spain's finance chief Calviño to head EU's investment bank

Since its creation in 1958, the EIB has had seven presidents, “all of them men, and never a Spaniard,” the 55-year-old economist said while putting her name forward to become the first woman to run what is effectively the EU’s financial arm.

And she’s done it: Calviño was appointed to the EIB’s top job at a meeting of European finance ministers, beating out Denmark’s Margrethe Vestager.

She will replace Germany’s Werner Hoyer whose second six-year term as EIB president finishes at the year’s end.

The decision consolidates the international stature of a woman who, since entering politics five years ago, has established herself as a political heavyweight in Spain’s left-wing government, with her liberal outlook ensuring budgetary orthodoxy among radical left-wing peers.


Calviño was born in 1968 in A Coruña, a port city in Spain’s northwestern Galicia region, to a father who was a lawyer and headed Spain’s public television in the early 1980s.

She grew up in Madrid where she studied economics then law. Fluent in English, French and German as well as her native Spanish, Calviño worked as an interpreter to finance her studies.

After completing her degrees, she held senior positions in the economy ministry under both conservative prime minister Jose Maria Aznar and his Socialist successor José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero.

In 2006 she moved to Brussels where from 2014 to 2018 she was the director general of the European Commission’s budget department.

Her political career began in 2018 when Sánchez, who was recently sworn in as premier, named her his economy minister as well as one of his deputy prime ministers.

Calviño’s appointment was seen as an attempt to send a message of stability to the markets which were concerned about the new minority Socialist government’s reliance on the far-left and on Basque and Catalan separatist parties to pass legislation.

The bet paid off, despite occasional tensions between Calviño and hard-left members of Sánchez’s cabinet.

Spain’s now former Minister of Economic Affairs Nadia Calviño (L) with President of the European Central Bank Christine Lagarde (C) and French Minister of Economy and Finances Bruno Le Maire. (Photo by MIGUEL RIOPA / AFP)

Animal brooches

A fan of 1950s films who is said to be polite-but-tough during negotiations, Calviño had to steer Spain’s economy through the fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic and the upheaval caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

On her watch, Spain’s economy expanded by 5.5 percent last year — one of the fastest rates in Europe — while inflation fell to 1.9 percent in June and stood at 3.2 percent in November, one of the lowest levels in the eurozone.

A mother of four, Calviño was in 2020 a candidate to lead the Eurogroup panel of eurozone finance ministers, a post she didn’t win despite Madrid’s campaign to support her.

But in December 2021 she was selected to chair the IMF’s monetary and financial committee.

With a penchant for animal-shaped brooches that carefully match her outfits, Calviño made headlines last year after refusing to take part in a photo at an event organised by the Madrid employers’ federation when she realised she was the only woman in the group.

The lack of parity in circles of power is “an issue that we must take seriously” which is “key for the proper functioning of our societies,” she said at the time, adding she would not take part in any more debates in which she is the only woman.