Financial Times

October 26, 2012 6:43 pm

The town that started Catalan deluge

By Julius Purcell in Arenys de Munt, Catalonia

Two rolls of Catalan flags stand in the window of Gloria Clopés’ haberdashery store in the town of Arenys de Munt,
 45 km from Barcelona.

“The one with the blue triangle is the older independence flag, I think,” says Ms. Clopés, 29, “and the one with the red
is newer. At least I think that’s the difference.”

Tucked inland away from the ribbon development of the Catalan coast, Arenys de Munt is remarkable for
 itsriera – the sand-strewn main street that doubles up as a flood channel, draining the steep wooded hills around.
When a mass rally for Catalan independence was held in Barcelona last month the difference hardly mattered.
 “People here were desperate to buy either,” she says.

Nearly every one of the elegant, modernista facades along the street sports a Catalan flag. This is hardly surprising:
for like the water that pours through it in torrents after the autumn rains, Arenys was where
 the recent Catalan nationalist deluge started.

Here, three years ago, local nationalists held the first of a series of informal, local plebiscites on independence that led
 inexorably to last month’s million-plus rally in Barcelona, an event that has turned Spanish politics on its head.

In the wake of that rally, Catalonia’s regional president, Artur Mas, called early elections for November,
holding out the promise of a referendum on independence if his party regains power.

“We’re proud of what we started here,” says Ms Clopés.

It was just up the street from her haberdashery that the first plebiscite was held, on September 13, 2009,
in a bar next to the town hall.

Over the next two years, the polls were rolled out in over 500 towns, offering residents a non-binding vote
on whether they wanted independence from Spain.

“We were the spark,”Josep Manel Jiménez, mayor of Arenys, explains proudly.

Mr Jiménez says his backing of the 2009 initiative earned him death threats from Spanish neo-fascists. A member
of the CUP, a small, pro-independence, leftwing party, he explained that Arenys has traditionally been a secessionist bastion.

“For three hundred years Catalans have been fighting this battle with Madrid,” he says, in reference to the
capture of Barcelona by Spain’s absolutist monarchy on September 11, 1714.

Forty-one per cent of Arenys residents voted in 2009, the overwhelming majority saying Yes to independence.
For Mr Jiménez it was the turning point in the independence movement.

“Back then, we had plenty of motives for being angry: tax revenues which are taken to Madrid and never returned
to us … the failure by central government to fulfil infrastructure obligations here,” he says. “We needed to go beyond
noisy street chanting, and this was how the local plebiscite was born.”

The wave of copycat plebiscites, Mr Jiménez says, involved 60,000 volunteer organisers across Catalonia. These
 local structures later formalised into territorial assemblies.

Finally, in March this year, these all came together under the new umbrella body of the Catalan National Assembly,
whose first task was the organisation of last month’s huge independence rally.

While all Catalans have heard of Arenys de Munt, fewer will have heard of Carme Forcadell. Despite her relatively
low profile, this former city councillor was central both to organising the local plebiscites and, as president of the new
assembly, in planning the September rally.

Three days after the rally, Ms Forcadell was invited to a meeting with regional president Mr Mas.

“Mas agreed with us that Catalans should decide whether we want our own state,” Ms Forcadell told the FT in her
 home city of Sabadell, near Barcelona. Mr Mas later made the promise of an official referendum, she says, because
 the rally turnout, which she estimated at over a million and a half, was so formidable.

“Our job now is to check that the next Catalan government delivers.”

Back in Arenys de Munt, however, not all are convinced by the secession argument.

Alexandra Massip, 40, school administrator, says independence would make no difference to austerity policies,
or to corruption. “We will have the same crooked practices ... whether they rule us from Madrid or Barcelona.”

While she is a minority voice in the town, Ms Massip’s concerns are reflected in wider Catalan society. Both
Ms Forcadell and Mr Jiménez admit that they have little detailed idea as to how anti-corruption mechanisms
might emerge in an independent Catalonia.

Away from the flags of secessionist strongholds like Arenys, these are the details many Catalans will be demanding
in the weeks ahead.