In Depth

How the Barcelona attacks could affect Catalonian independence

In Depth: Catalan leaders are pressing ahead with their secession vote despite Madrid's call for unity

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The terror attacks in Barcelona and Cambrils are a reminder that Spain is not immune to the large-scale atrocities that have plagued its European neighbours. In fact, the nation has a "long and bloody history of domestic terrorism", writes Martin Evans in the Daily Telegraph

Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (Eta), the now-disarmed Basque separatist group, killed more than 800 people and wounded thousands over a 40-year period. The Madrid bombings of 2004 – linked to al-Qaeda – remain the deadliest terrorist attack in Europe this century, notes The Independent.  

Although Spain has recovered from previous terrorist atrocities, the consequences of these latest attacks are unclear. The violence in Barcelona and Cambrils – which took place against a backdrop of tension between Spain's conservative Popular Party and the regional Catalan government – may have a political impact on Catalonia's independence referendum on 1 October. 

Roadmap to independence

Barcelona and Cambrils are both located in Catalonia, in northeast Spain, sandwiched between the Mediterranean and the Pyrenees. The region has "long demanded greater autonomy from Madrid", reports The Local

Catalonia has its own culture, traditions and language, as well as an autonomous government and parliament. For its ruling separatist politicians, however, this does not go far enough.

President Carles Puigdemont said it was "up to the Catalans to decide their future" in a referendum scheduled for 1 October, despite a ruling in the Spain's constitutional court that the vote would be unlawful, reports Euronews

Last week's terrorist attacks won't halt the referendum, Puigdemont said, adding that the "roadmap" toward independence would not change.  

Calls for unity

While Catalonia has been steadfast in its determination to hold a separation vote, the Spanish government responded to the attacks by calling for unity. 

Spain's Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy called for co-operation and for Spain to "leave behind what separates [us] in the face of greater challenges". "We Spaniards will win this [fight against terrorism]", he said, according to Deutsche Welle

Writing in The Guardian, Francesc Badia i Dalmases said that "if there is one thing that can feed the spirit of a nation and the solidarity of its people, it's a deadly terrorist attack", noting that "Barcelonians, Catalans and Spanish alike" felt the pain.

"Seven Hours of Independence"

For separatists, however, the attacks demonstrated Catalonia's preparedness for independence – and Madrid's shortcomings.

Catalan writer Bernat Dedeu contrasted Puigdemont's statesmanlike response with Rajoy's delayed arrival in Barcelona, in a polemic entitled Seven Hours of Independence. He also praised Catalonia's police force, reports The Spectator. 

Independence activists downplayed the significance of the warm reception received by Rajoy and King Felipe VI during a vigil in Barcelona, attributing this to propriety, the BBC reports. 

Just because "[people] clapped the king of Spain..." does not mean the "attack will become the wild card that gives the sovereignty game back to Madrid", says the BBC's Patrick Jackson.

Political point scoring

There have been accusations that the attacks have been used as political ammunition.

According to Politico, two mainstream and pro-union Spanish newspapers – El Pais and El Mundo – "published editorials the morning after the attacks, accusing the Catalan regional government of focusing exclusively on its quest to win independence from Spain at the cost of the region’s security".

"An attack of this magnitude has to be a blow that restores reality to the Catalan political forces," El Pais said, adding that it's time to end the "flagrant violation of laws [and] games of deception".

Conflating the terror attacks with Catalonia's bid for independence may be unwise for Spain's ruling Popular Party, whose decision to blame the Madrid bombings on Eta – rather than al-Qaeda – cost them re-election, the Economist claims. 

A nation divided 

"Both the Catalan...and the central government[s] would do well to keep [terror and independence] separate," Carlos Barrera, a professor at the University of Navarre, told Reuters

As for Catalans, they appear to be divided. A poll conducted before last week's attacks by the Catalan public polling body showed the percentage of people who supported a Catalan independent state dropped to 41.1 per cent in June from 44.3 per cent in March, Politico reports. Similar polling information following the attacks was not available. 

"How will the terrorist attack affect this situation? Who knows? But my bet is – not very much and if it does, it will reinforce the unionist side," Adria Alsina Leal, a journalism professor and Catalan independence activist, told the BBC. "Ultimately I don't think the essence of the independence debate is going to change, because the underlying situation has not changed." 

A 'Yes' vote risks further polarising the two governments. Catalan politicians have vowed to unilaterally declare independence if the results favour secession, reports The Local, while Spain is ready to reject both the outcome of the vote and its legality.

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