Terrorism has a way of uniting, at least in its immediate aftermath, the country targeted by an attack.
But that does not appear to be holding true for the attack in and around Barcelona that killed 15 people. Instead, it seems to be laying bare the deteriorating relationship between Spain and the region of Catalonia as the latter moves forward with an Oct. 1 referendum to vote on secession.
Catalan authorities have been broadly commended, both within Spain and internationally, for their response to Spain’s first terrorist attack in the new era of the Islamic State. But the region’s pro-independence leaders have been accused of politicizing the tragedy, jostling to take center stage, as if to show the world Catalonia can deal with a state emergency. Pro-Spanish voices have been accused of the same. The Madrid-based El País newspaper penned an editorial – just a day after a man drove through the heart of Barcelona’s Las Ramblas – urging Catalans to give up “their independence fantasy” in favor of addressing the “real problems” of the country.
Far from shifting views on whether Catalonia should be its own country and whether the time is right or not for a secession vote, the terrorist attack in Barcelona has served to harden positions on both sides – making an already tense situation more fraught.
“Even at this sad time, it is clear that the appearance of unity doesn’t have much depth to it,” says Caroline Gray, an expert on Spanish independence movements at Aston University in Britain. “Such politicization of the tragedy on both sides merely stokes anger.”
All are aware of the political stakes at a complex moment for the nation. Last time Spain was the victim of a terrorist attack, in the 2004 Atocha train bombings in Madrid, electoral predictions for the general election days later were turned on their head. The ruling, conservative Popular Party (PP) – which initially blamed the Basque terror group ETA instead of the actual perpetrators, Islamic terrorists retaliating against Spain’s unpopular decision to send troops to Iraq alongside US forces – lost handily to the Socialists.
This time the tragedy has become so entangled in the current dispute between Catalonia and the central government that a massive anti-terrorism march for Saturday is being led by police, emergency forces, and local retailers. Analysts say the intention is to “hide” politicians from the front lines, from Barcelona Mayor Ada Colau and Catalan Regional President Carles Puigdemont on one side to representatives of Madrid on the other, after some radical pro-independence politicians said they would boycott the march if the Spanish king attended it. It will be a far cry from the march in Paris after the Charlie Hebdo attack in early 2015, where leaders from more than 40 nations joined hands as they led an historic crowd past the site of the attack.
Las Ramblas today is a sea of candles, flowers, and teddy bears. One tourist promoter, María De Chirico, says she has also witnessed something more surprising: the laying down of the Spanish flag, a symbol that is hardly visible in a city that proudly hangs the Estelada, the Catalan flag.
For many residents, this makes perfect sense. “This wasn’t an attack on Catalans, but on all Spain,” says Pedro Escolano, a Barcelona native who works at a publishing company.
King Felipe VI and Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy arrived in Barcelona to stand alongside the leading figures pushing for Catalan independence in a central plaza near Las Ramblas the day after the attack. But it didn’t take long for signs of strain to show. El País issued a damning editorial, particularly slamming Catalonia’s separatist politicians. “It’s time to ditch the democratic nonsense, the flagrant lawbreaking, the games, the tactics and political opportunism. It’s time that those governing us start working for our real interests,” the paper opined. “The fight against terrorism requires complete coordination and a concerted effort among the various authorities and security forces.”
And at the same time, when the regional government announced those killed and injured during the terrorist attack, it came under harsh criticism for distinguishing between “Catalan” and “Spanish” victims.
Proof of self-sufficiency?
The referendum scheduled for Oct. 1, on whether Catalans want to be part of an independent country in the form of a republic, is considered illegal by the central government, which is attempting to use the courts to prevent it from happening. But failure to allow a vote has only emboldened Catalan secessionists historically.
In an opinion poll taken before the terrorist attack, 41 percent of respondents said they want Catalonia to be independent, while 49 percent said they do not. And 62 percent want more autonomy, which Madrid has refused to give them.
Catalonia generates a fifth of Spain’s GDP and already has wide sovereignty, managing its own education system and police forces. But it does not enjoy as many powers as the Basque Country, which runs its own taxes. “Two years ago, I would never have voted to break from Spain. But now I feel closer to doing that,” says Dario Soto, who works in the hotel industry in Barcelona. “If they don’t let us express our will in a vote, well, I don’t agree with those ways.”
He says the terrorist attack has done nothing to influence his views – only a softening from Madrid would change his position.
Kristina Kausch, a senior resident fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the US in Brussels, says that while terrorism tends to shore up central governments, here the same logic doesn’t apply. “Terrorism has a decades-old history in Spain,” she says, first with ETA bombings and then after Spain was was hit in 2004. Spain has a strong reputation in counter-terrorism because of it. But one of the protagonists of the effort has been the Catalan police, the Mossos d’Esquadra.
In a piece entitled “7 Hours of Independence” in the Catalan daily El Nacional, Bernat Dedéu criticized Madrid for their initial absence from the tragedy while praising Mr. Puigdemont and Ms. Colau for behaving “like two authentic leaders of the nation.”
Jordi Matas, professor of political science at the University of Barcelona, says Catalonia has been slowly building an apparatus to deal with the crises of a state. “The Catalan government has been working for years in crafting the needed state structures for an eventual self-government,” he says. “Some people will now say that the attacks have shown that the country is ready for self-government.”
Doubts about the investigation linger, however, with many unanswered questions.
Anthony Glees, director of the Center for Security and Intelligence at the University of Buckingham, says several elements so far point to a security lapse. One criticism is the city’s decision not to put up bollards around Las Ramblas, as recommended after a truck plowed into a Christmas market in Berlin in December. The growth of the large-scale terrorist cell in the region also raises questions about why it went undetected. An explosion the day prior to the attack in a house full of gas canisters was initially not investigated as terror-related.
On the other hand, many like Mr. Dedéu have criticized the Spanish government for obstructing access of Catalan police to European security databases, weakening their own investigations.
Tensions show no signs of abating. Professor Matas says a majority of Catalans want a referendum, and the attack has not changed this. “What is clear is the confrontation between the Catalan and the Spanish governments, with both sides working on opposite ends towards making a referendum on Oct. 1 a reality,” he says. “We are headed towards a very severe conflict in the month of September. Both sides will fight this hard.”
Sara Miller Llana reported from Bilbao, Spain.