1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Terror attacks leave Barcelona and Madrid at odds

Hagar Jobse Madrid
August 25, 2017

Terrorism tends to bring together nations. Not so in Spain, where the Barcelona attacks have exposed the central government at loggerheads with Catalonia over their drive for independence. Hagar Jobse reports.

Demonstrators for an independent Catalonia hold up a sign shaped like handcuffs that reads "Spanish democracy"
Image: Reuters/A. Gea

"When will the solidarity march with Barcelona take place in Madrid?" This comment, tweeted on Tuesday by Barcelona resident Alex Montes, 37, has been retweeted over a thousand times as it strikes a chord among Catalans and Spaniards from other parts of the country. "Do not turn this tragedy into a political discussion," one person replied. Others said that the past few days had shown that Spain and Catalonia are disconnected from each other as if they were two separate states.

Montes says his tweet was meant to address the alleged lack of support from the government in Madrid to the city of Barcelona in the wake of last week's attacks in the Catalan capital. "After the terror attacks in Madrid on March 11, 2004, one and a half million people came together in the streets of Barcelona to march against terrorism and show their solidarity with the Spanish capital. On Saturday there will be a massive march in Barcelona against terrorism. You might expect a similar protest would take place in Madrid, right? But no, so far nothing has been organized."

'Resilient Barcelona' stands up against fear

Terror in Barcelona

After the August 17 Barcelona attacks, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy called for unity across the country. But, so far, it is in short supply. On the contrary, the attacks have made it painfully clear how serious the tensions are between Spain's central government and the region of Catalonia. 

For years the Spanish and the Catalonian governments have been in conflict over the question of Catalonian independence. The region, in which the Catalan language is widely spoken, already enjoys extensive autonomy in education, health care and policing. A substantial number of Catalans want to see their region acquire even greater autonomy by becoming an independent nation. Catalonia is Spain's wealthiest region; it accounts for 18.8 percent of Spain's national GDP. There is a widespread feeling among Catalonians that the Spanish government takes more from their region than it returns - a sentiment which has intensified since the severe economic crisis that hit Spain in 2008.

'Abandoned by Madrid'

Tensions between Madrid and Catalonia's pro-independence government have become even greater since December 2016, when Catalan Prime Minister Carles Puigdemont announced that a referendum on independence would be held on October 1, 2017. The Catalan government insists the referendum will be legally binding, while Spanish government has already declared it illegal.

Catalonia's Islamic extremism problem

Montes, born in Barcelona to a Belgian mother and Andalusian father, was raised in a Spanish-speaking family and never learned to speak Catalan. Even so, he has been a supporter of the independence cause for several years. He says that, like him, many Catalans feel abandoned by the Spanish state. "Catalonia does not profit from being part of Spain at all. Very little public money is invested in this region. It feels like the Spanish state does not care about us."

In the wake of the attacks, several Spanish politicians have stressed the importance of putting political differences aside. When Rajoy and Puigdemont made a joint appearance before the press last Friday, for a moment it seemed as if they would be able to do so. Rajoy declared that Madrid and Catalonia would work closely to fight terrorism, while Puigdemont thanked the prime minister for being present at the emergency meeting in Barcelona.

A woman holds a sign reading: "Barcelona stands united against terrorism"
Barcelona may be united, but the rest of the country isn't necessarily united with it Image: picture alliance / ZUMAPRESS.com

But later in the day Puigdemont declared that the tragedy would not change anything when it came to about Catalonia's fight for independence. When the names of the first victims were announced during the night, Catalonia's regional interior minister Joaquim Forn distinguished between the Catalan and Spanish victims as if they were of different nationalities.

Catalonian independence rears its head again

Moreover, the three days of national mourning Rajoy announced after the attacks went unnoticed in large parts of the country. "In August there are always many local festivities in different parts of Spain," Montes says. They all continued after Thursday, while after the Madrid attacks of 2004 the whole country was paralyzed for days."

Public discord

Spanish King Felipe VI is expected to be among the thousands of people attending Saturday's anti-terrorism march in Barcelona. Rather than becoming an opportunity for Spaniards to unite against terrorism, the march is already being appropriated to fuel the independence debate. The radical leftist pro-independence party CUP has said it will stay away as long as the king is present. Many Catalan separatists reject the royal family, which they associate with the idea of a centralized Spain and incompatible with the independence of Catalonia.

King Felipe stands next to his wife and two daughters as he opens parliament
Some Catalans see the king, as a representative of Spain, as a problemImage: Getty Images/AFP/P.-Ph. Marcou

Although the country's intelligence services have an excellent reputation for foiling terrorism plots and arresting alleged jihadists, it has become apparent that they have botched cooperation with the Catalan police. Last Saturday, for example, Spanish Interior Minister Juan Ignacio Zoido announced the terrorist cell that carried out the attacks had been dismantled, contradicting information from Catalonia's police force. Regional Interior Minister Forn corrected him, pointing out that according to Catalonia's regional police force, which was leading the investigation, the suspected driver of the van that rammed into crowds on Las Ramblas was still at large. Catalonia has also accused the central government of not providing enough access to information from CITCO, the Spanish intelligence agency tasked with preventing domestic terrorism and organized crime.

Catalonia, for its part, may have ignored a December 2016 letter from the Spanish security forces that advised the regional authorities to introduce additional security measures in frequently visited spots in Barcelona.

Barcelona revolts against those pesky tourists

The strain between Barcelona and Madrid over independence could lead to serious problems in the future, says terrorism expert Carlos Igualada. "Because of the current tensions, it has become really difficult for the two governments to have a meaningful dialogue on issues like security. Effective cooperation between national and local security forces is essential when it comes to preventing attacks like the one in Barcelona. Apart from the Spanish enclaves Ceuta and Melilla, most Spain-based jihadists are from the Catalonia region."