Madrid vs Barcelona: the two cities at the heart of Europe’s biggest crisis

Young people wearing the Catalan and Spanish flags.Image: Getty.

Who’s that at the door? Chances are it's your neighbour's kids dressed as Dracula threatening to put your windows out. While you pay them off, though, it’s also the perfect moment to wish them a happy World Cities Day.

That’s right – the United Nations has designated the 31 October as the city-ist day of the year. This year, it’s focusing on the theme of “Innovative Governance, Open Cities, to highlight the important role of urbanisation as a source of global development and social inclusion”.

Without wishing to be too facetious, though, has anyone at the UN read a newspaper recently? The aim of World Cities Day is noble, of course, but it will surely provoke hollow laughter in Madrid and Barcelona. At the time of writing the Spanish government is poised to impose direct rule on Catalan citizens. The situation is so fluid that the drama will have undoubtedly moved on by the time you read this.

The novelist and member of the European Cultural Parliament, Laura Freixas, was born in Barcelona and now lives in Madrid. She told me that, in her opinion, since the 1960s, Madrid has admired Barcelona and Barcelona has despised Madrid. “I think Catalan nationalists have convinced many Catalans that Spain equals Madrid equals Partido Popular.”

Freixas says she appreciates the anonymity of Madrid.

“Barcelona has a strong personality, which is wonderful – especially in aesthetic terms – but it is a little stifling too. In Barcelona I have always felt that society was divided between ‘us’  and ‘the others’.” ‘Us’ here refers to 400 bourgeois and Catalan families that dominate the city's social, political, intellectual life. The others are those who arrived later, are not rich, and are not 100 per cent Catalan.

“In Barcelona you are quickly probed - who is your family? What school did you go to? Where do you spend the summers? The answer pigeonholes you immediately, to everybody's relief,” Freixas explains. “In Madrid, by contrast, nobody asks, nobody cares, you are seen as a person, not so much as the representative of a fraction of a social class. Madrid is certainly much less beautiful than Barcelona, it has much less of a personality, but I feel by far more free here than in my home city.”

The Catalan-based broadcast journalist Carrie Frais believes Madrid and Barcelona are in a protracted crisis in which both Catalans and Spanish ‘nationals’ could potentially come out as losers.

“In the long run I do not foresee Catalonia becoming independent,” she says. “But my concern is that the region could emerge from the situation seriously weakened with less ability to negotiate restoring the status quo on their terms. Both Madrid and Catalonia have a lot to lose including their image, the reputation of democratic institutions and most worryingly their economies, which had been performing above and beyond expectations. It will be a long haul to get back to where they were just a month ago.”

The surreal speed at which events are moving was emphasised by Laura Roth, lecturer in the Department of Law at Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona. She told me that she thinks Barcelona is winning the “legitimacy battle” and Madrid “the coercive one”.

She said: “Most of the things that are happening in the last few weeks were completely unthinkable a few months ago. As long as the international community doesn't intervene, it is most likely that force will be imposed.” The main difference between the two forces is that Madrid has shown it is unwilling to talk, while Catalonia has at least made a few attempts. “In this game of chicken there's one of them that's not willing to give up.

“My personal opinion,” she adds, “is that we're witnessing a transition from the nation-state to new forms of organisation around cities in a global world. But we still need states to function and in our case the European Union is reinforcing the old scheme.”


Robert Fishman, Conex-Marie Curie Professor of Political Science and Sociology at Carlos III University in Madrid said the ruling party in the Spanish capital prides itself on its unwillingness to yield. A referendum accepted by both Madrid and Barcelona would have been the quickest and surest way to resolve the crisis. But the adamant opposition of the Madrid government to this option made it impossible – even though opinion polling clearly showed that independence would have lost in a legally sanctioned vote.

Part of the problem, Fishman says, lies in the two cities’ vastly different economies. Infrastructure investment has focused on Madrid, with all the benefits that implies. Changes in the post-industrial economy have had a more positive economic impact in Madrid than in Barcelona, too: the latter’s economy relies more heavily on manufacturing than the capital, where most corporate HQs are based.

“However,” he adds, “there is a great deal of economic activity in Barcelona that centers on cultural creativity.  Young and creative people tend to be more drawn to Barcelona.”

And an independent Catalan state would “find it very difficult to go it alone.  International recognition and trade would be crucial – but as of now the conditions are not in place for an independent Catalonia to gain international recognition”. Moreover, in order for a new and independent Catalan state to be viable, numerous complex budgetary matters – involving public debt, pension payments and so forth – would have to be resolved in negotiations with Spain. “A negotiation process of that nature seems to be quite impossible.”

None of those I asked expected the crisis to be solved soon or satisfactorily – which is far more disturbing than the badly carved pumpkin in your window.

 
 
 
 

Where did London’s parakeets come from?

Parakeets in the skies above Wormwood Scrubs, west London. Image: Getty.

Visitors to London’s many green spaces would have to be stubbornly looking at their feet to not see one of the UK’s most exotic birds.  Dubbed “posh pigeons” by unimaginative Londoners, these brilliant green parakeets stand out among the fauna of Northern Europe’s mostly grey cities.

‘Parakeets’ is actually an umbrella term referring to the multiple species, which can now be found in London, Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris and various German cities. By far the most common is the Indian ring-necked parakeet, easily recognisable by the stylish red ring around their neck, a matching red beak and, of course, the loud squawking.

In the last 50 years these migrants from South Asia have arrived and thrived, settling into their own ecological niche. In the UK, London is a particular stronghold, but although they may have originally settled in the leafy streets of Twickenham, the birds can now be found in cities as far north as Glasgow.

The story of how they ended up in London is a matter of some discussion and plenty of myth. One often reported theory is that the capitals’ current population are the descendants of birds that escaped from Shepperton Studios during filming of The African Queen, starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. Others would tell you that they escaped from Syon Park in the early 1970s, when a piece of debris from a passing plane damaged the aviary and allowed them to escape. This chimes with their original concentration in South West London.
My favourite story by far is that they were released by Jimi Hendrix on Carnaby Street in the late 60s. Bored of London’s grey skyline, he set the little fellas free to liven up the place.

However they got here, from 1970 onwards their numbers boomed. In 1992, 700 birds were recorded in London Bird Report. By 1998, 2,845 were seen in the London Area, and by 2006 the ring-neck parakeet was 15th most sighted bird in London.


Darwin would be proud at how well they adapted to the new environment. Toughened up by the hard Himalayan climate, they handle the cold northern European winters better than most locals. Global warming is often brought up in discussions of the parakeets, but it is certainly only part of the story.
It helps, too, that the birds have a 35 year lifespan and few local predators, enabling them to breed freely.

As with any new species, the debate has raged about whether they are harmful to the ecosystem. Strangely reminiscent of the debate over human migrants, often the birds have often been accused of stealing the homes of the natives. The parakeets do nest in tree cavities also used by jackdaws, owls and woodpeckers – but there is little evidence that native species are being muscled out. 

The also provide a food source for Britain's embattled birds of prey. Owls and peregrine falcons have been know to eat them. Charlie and Tom, two city dwelling falcons monitored by Nathalie Mahieu, often bring back parakeets as food.
Of more concern is the new arrivals’ effect on plants and trees. By 2009 their numbers in the UK had grown so much that they were added to the “general licence” of species, which can be killed without individual permission if they are causing damage.

And Parrotnet, am EU funded research project studying the development of parakeet populations across Europe, has warned of the risk they pose to agriculture. In their native India, the parakeets are known to cause widespread damage to crops. As agriculture develops in the UK in line with warmer climates, crops such as maize, grapes and sunflower will become more popular. In India the birds have been documented as reducing maize crops by 81 per cent.

So the parakeets remain divisive. Environmentalist Tony Juniper has disparagingly described them as “the grey squirrel of the skies”. By contrast, the University of York biologist Chris D. Thomas has argued that the parakeets should be left free to move and breed. He sees those wary of the parakeet boom of “irrational persecution” of the bird.

For good or ill the parakeets are here to stay. As so often with migrants of all kinds, there has been some unease about the impact they have had – but the birds, popular amongst Londoners, certainly add colour to the city. Thriving in the urban environment thousands of miles from their natural habitat, they are a metropolitan bird for Europe’s metropolitan cities. 

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