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.

 
 
 
 

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