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Tug of war between Madrid and Barcelona. Forti (history scholar): “none of the parties involved is open to dialogue.” The day-after remains a hanging question

The Spanish Government has suspended the unconstitutional referendum of October 1st. But no solution was proposed by Premier Rajoy, while the Catalan president Puidgemont rides on the wave of separatism. For Barcelona University’s Professor: "They are both victims of a purposeless strategy". Meanwhile, protests are escalating in the region. And Europe? "It should facilitate a real confrontation between the involved parties”

A dialogue of the deaf. Indeed, there is no dialogue. And while Spain and Catalonia are marching in opposite directions, in Barcelona social tensions are escalating. The national government of Mariano Rajoy has in fact declared illegal the referendum proclaimed on October 1st by the Generalitat, the regional executive organ, in support of the independence process. At least 30 000 Civil Guard policemen have arrived from every corner of the Iberian peninsula, according to estimates. Ballot papers were seized, the seats dismantled … In Barcelona and other Catalan cities and villages people took to the streets, demanding political autonomy and “freedom to choose” their own future.

“What worries the most is the lack of open dialogue channels” between the involved parties, Steven Forti, of Italian origins, Professor of Contemporary History at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, where he has been living for the past 15 years, told SIR. Professor Forti authored several books on the history of Catalonia. His latest volume focuses on the ongoing independent process in the region that counts over 7 million inhabitants, on an overall Spanish population of 46 million, contributing to 19% of national GDP. Economic and fiscal reasons, in addition to identity, culture and politics, mark the differences between Spain and Catalonia, said the historian. In particular, as regards the referendum, “from the constitutional point of view, the government is right, because it goes against the Constitution”; but court rulings are not enough to decide on the whole episode, behind which Rajoy is entrenched. Just as the Catalan government may be criticised for having chosen the unilateral option of secessionist claims …

Professor, what’s happening in Barcelona? Tensions are escalating. Students and demonstrators took to the streets. The referendum scheduled for Sunday won’t take place, but it is bound to be a day marked by vehement identity claims.

Is there a risk of clashes and violence? I don’t think so. It never happened before. The protests of the Catalan population have always been civilized and in compliance with the law. But it’s also true that tensions are high. This is due to the lack of dialogue between the parties involved, and as things stand, neither of them are likely to change their minds. It will be important to see how many will take part in the protests planned for the coming weekend, that are likely to involve the whole region.

Who will take to the streets? Not only independentists – who, according to accurate data (based on figures from 2014 surveys and on the outcome of the 2015 election) are estimated to account for 30 to 45% of the overall population. Protesters are bound to include all those who accuse the government of having acted beyond the limits of democracy and in utter disrespect of self-determination, along with those who demand greater fiscal autonomy and respect for Catalan culture and language.

How did the situation go so far?
In my opinion both Rajoy, at the lead of a weak government, and Carles Puidgemont, Catalonia’s President,

Are slaves to their unconsidered strategy.

Rajoy never made a veritable proposal for conciliation with Barcelona (perhaps integrating a stronger recognition of Catalan identity within the Spanish Constitution). Puidgemont, also for electoral purposes, made no effort to reach an agreement. At this stage, whichever one of the two decided to take a retrograde step would be branded as a loser and a traitor by his own supporters.

Albeit cautiously, the European Union roots for the Country’s unity. This is quite obvious, also given the number of separatist fronts throughout Europe, not to mention the open wound of the Brexit. In your opinion, does this position favour the cause? It’s a very complex question. While on the one side the European Commission is calling for unity, on the other it makes it clear that it’s a domestic issue pertaining to Spain. Brussels should act behind the scenes, with caution and respect, trying to promote the dialogue between Madrid’s government and the region of Catalonia.

There is talk of a “Catalan identity” that is different from the rest of the Country. As a historian, what is your opinion? The history, language and culture of a people are all very important. This is all the more true in Catalonia. Also given its lively civil society, with a prolific network of civil society associations. The region’s economic strength must also be borne in mind… However, these aspects are manipulated for political or electoral purposes by independentist factions. There exists a form of political abuse of history bent to suit separatist claims. Some Catalan historians have depicted Catalonia as a country under Castilian occupation. It is evident that these are dangerously stretched interpretations.

What would be the destiny of a small State like Catalonia in our globalized world? 
This aspect deserves further reflection. In fact no serious plans were made regarding the day-after. Independence is lived as a collective utopian dream. It was said that independence would have brought richness, social justice and freedom; in short, a land of plenty. While it would be necessary to attempt to analyse the situation and envisage future developments. I think that someone is living in a dream. We shall wait and see if starting next Monday Madrid and Barcelona will share the determination to listen to each other and jointly address the problems on the table.

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