As Madrid and Catalonia argue, Spaniards ask, 'What about our say?'

Spaniards are generally opposed to Catalonia's attempt to declare independence from Spain, but also are not happy with how the central government has handled the situation. And they feel that they aren't being heard on an issue that involves them.

Santi Palacios/AP
Two men, one wearing a Spanish flag, left, and the other wearing a Catalonian estelada, talk during Spain's National Day, in Barcelona, Spain, on Oct. 12.

Ever since neighboring Catalonia held a vote on declaring independence from Spain, this city has been festooned with the national flag in what might seem at first glance a collective exaltation of the Spanish state.

It fits the dominating narrative of two combating sides in the country’s biggest political crisis in decades – Catalans who seek self-determination and Spaniards who will do anything to stop it. The flags unfurled over balconies across Zaragoza, the capital of the Aragon region, match in visuals the sight of esteladas – the flags symbolizing Catalan independence – increasingly swaying in Barcelona.

Except most here say they feel misunderstood by this interpretation, or the way it might look at street level.

The political drama continues to unfold, with implications not just for the future of Spain but for the whole of Europe. And both sides seem to be digging in their heels. Catalan President Carles Puigdemont on Thursday turned the question of Catalan independence over to the regional parliament, leaving Madrid set to respond by taking the unprecedented step of assuming parts of Catalonia's regional authority.

But many residents here say they don’t support either Catalonia’s separatists or Madrid’s unionists, led by the ruling conservative Popular Party (PP) of Mariano Rajoy. They say they resent the assumptions when their protest against Catalonia’s independence drive is about legality, democracy, and belief in a united Spain. At the end of the day, many say they simply do not want to see Catalonia go, and if it were to, they should have their say in it too.

“Catalonia is not the husband or the wife in a marriage. In a marriage you can divorce,” says Yago Oñate, who writes a column for the local paper Hoy Aragón. “Catalonia is an essential part of a reality that is called Spain.”

“Catalonia is my country, and I want to decide on questions about my country.”

Of neither side

Zaragoza is not the only city to have dusted off national emblems in the wake of this crisis. But because of the city’s proximity to Barcelona, it has felt the crisis more intensely. A series of pro-Spanish protests surged here after the violence-marred Oct. 1 vote, when the central government dispatched Spanish police to quash the referendum.

Catalans, if they do not bristle at the demonstrations in Zaragoza, still have found it easy to dismiss a city already replete with Spanish symbols: from painter Francisco Goya; to Our Lady of the Pillar, an important Catholic basilica; to a major military academy that was particularly important during the Franco dictatorship. Ana Garcia, walking her dog in a park in Barcelona recently, says that she is not against the Spanish flag in theory. “But I feel that many are waving it not because it represents Spain, but because it is against Catalonia,” she says.

But for those in Zaragoza, the Catalonian independence debate is not so black and white. Olga Moreno, who started an association in Zaragoza called Transparency that aims to repair corrupted politics in Spain, admits resentments are running high on both sides. Sometimes she thinks that if she could vote on Catalan independence, it might make sense to vote “yes” and part ways.

But she says she wouldn’t, because Catalan independence runs counter to her European consciousness. “I am against any kind of separatism. It doesn't make sense to make more physical borders. Because today it is about globalizing everything and about union,” she says.

Across the political spectrum, residents of Zaragoza place differing degrees of blame on the ruling party and the Catalan authorities, as well as other political parties jockeying for position. Some agree that Catalans should have a legal right to vote on independence. But no one said they accepted the results of the vote, which was declared unconstitutional. Nor would they like to see Catalonia leave. 

Juan de la Cal, a student on break at the Zaragoza School of Arts, says Spain would suffer from the economic loss, since Catalonia generates 20 percent of the nation’s GDP. Others, like Mr. Oñate, say they would reassess their views if the region itself enjoyed a majority supporting independence. Instead, a new Catalan government poll this week showed 52.2 percent wanting to remain a part of Spain as it is or within a federal state, with 34.7 seeking independence.

'I don't like all of these flags'

This “gray zone” is where most Spaniards sit, says Pablo Simón, a politics professor at the University Carlos III in Madrid. That is why the main political parties, with the exception of the PP, are voicing support for some kind of constitutional reform that could see referendums possible in the future. But politics is widening the gap between the two sides. “Each is demanding from the other the only thing the other can’t give,” he says. “Of course the gray zone is in the middle, and there is a huge range of options between both extremes.”

The crisis has left many Spaniards even more disillusioned with their political actors. Fran Navarro, a barista at the plant-filled Cafe Botanico in the center of Zaragoza, supports Podemos, the only political party that has expressly supported the Catalan right to vote. He does too. But he thinks both sides are simply diverting attention from their own corruption and mishandlings.

The flag-bearing is problematic, says Professor Simón, because it makes a consensus harder to find. “The situation right now is one of increasing polarization, and other Spanish flags and those esteladas on the other side are making actors less prone to move their positions.”

For Mr. Navarro, the flags hanging around his city feel unsettling. “I don’t like all of these flags,” he says. “It feels strange.”

Moreno sees the blazing red and yellow stripes around as progress. She hung one up outside her own home only one time before: when Spain won the World Cup in 2010. “When I go to other countries, people have their flags, some on masts in their gardens. We have had too much of a complex about it,” she says. “I feel liberated. I can show it and not be called a facha,” she says, the Spanish slang for fascist.

Or at least not, she concedes, in Zaragoza.

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