Barcelona – As the Catalan independence crisis enters its fourth month in December, the intended outcome of an independent Catalonia remains elusive.
But the push for independence has had an unintended consequence; it has invigorated Spain’s far-right movements unlike any event since the country’s transition to democracy in the 1970s, according to Jordi Borras, a Catalan photojournalist and author who monitors the Spanish far-right.
In the years before the crisis, the far-right’s impact has been negligible both on the Spanish streets and in parliament, even as similar movements flourished in France, the Netherlands, Austria, Hungary and elsewhere, Cas Mudde, a professor and scholar at the University of Georgia who specialises in European far-right politics, told Al Jazeera.
Scholars say it is a combination of the mainstream conservative ruling People’s Party “capturing the nationalist vote” and “regionalist division” between Spain’s minority regions that has put the far-right in the spotlight, Mudde commented.
“Their importance is overplayed in the media. They are much more visible than relevant,” Mudde said.
But the political turmoil that has resulted from Catalonia’s declaration of independence is bringing these groups, of which there are dozens, together. Borras told Al Jazeera that things have “changed quickly” in Spain, perhaps faster than many observers can track.
Borras explained that the Spanish far-right was previously a “constellation” of ultra-nationalist groups. Some are Neo-Nazis, some are “Falangists” or the remnants of the foremost paramilitary group under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, who ruled Spain as a right-wing conservative, Catholic nation from 1939 until 1975. Others exist in their own groups.
Though these groups have a history of in-fighting, Catalan independence has given the far-right a reason to unite, Borras said.
Catalonia’s police force, the Mossos d’Esquadra, finished investigating four incidents of politically-motivated violence, spanning from September 22 to October 27, according to a statement delivered to Al Jazeera.
All of these attacks are believed to have been committed by the far-right.
The perpetrators of one attack, which took place on October 8, were identified by photographs wherein the suspects were giving “Hitler salutes”. The Mossos’ statement says these attackers were “Spanish nationalists”.
After Catalonia held its disputed independence referendum on October 1, Spanish courts declared the vote illegal and ordered the national police and the Civil Guard, a military unit tasked with domestic policing, to stop the referendum while “respecting co-existence”.
Spanish law enforcement was filmed executing a violent crackdown on voters that rights groups called “excessive”. The violence bolstered Catalonia’s resolve for independence.
After a month of political back-and-forth where Catalan President Carles Puigdemont called for dialogue and Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy of the centre-right People’s Party reneged the offer, the Catalan parliament voted for independence On October 27.
Spain responded by enacting Article 155, a never-before-used provision of the constitution that allows the central government to dismiss the Catalan government and directly administer the breakaway region.
Puigdemont and four of his former ministers fled to Belgium, while nearly a dozen pro-independence lawmakers and organisers, including former Catalan Vice President Oriol Junqueras, were imprisoned on charges of rebellion and sedition.
While far-right violence is on the rise, the attacks are encouraging a response from the activist community in Catalonia, Borras noted.
It was visible at one protest on the evening of Monday, October 30. Roughly 500 anti-fascist protesters dressed in black with covered faces stood directly across from a smaller group of far-right activists.
Unlike recent protests in Barcelona, the Antifa group did not take to the streets for the sake of nationalism, but for safety.
Holding flags of workers’ syndicates, a trademark of the anarchist, anti-fascists forces that fought in Spain’s Civil War, the protesters made it clear to both the police and far-right protesters that these attacks would not go unanswered.
Chanting “the streets will always be ours,” a slogan popular with pro-independence demonstrators, they ran past police barricades to confront members of the “Last Bastion,” an ultra-nationalist group active in Catalonia.
A chase over several blocks ended with the Catalan police breaking up an altercation between Last Bastion members and an anti-fascist protester.
The Mossos’ statement concluded by saying a further eight cases of political violence were being investigated.
“The Catalan situation makes it so that we are more organised [to prevent] Catalan independence from being achieved,” a spokesperson of Spain’s Generation Identity (GI), a movement which doesn’t consider itself to be a right-wing movement, but a “movement of identity” that respects “the Christian history of Europe”, told Al Jazeera in an email.
Spain’s GI was founded in Barcelona in 2016. It started as a small group of older people, the spokesperson, who did not give their name, said. The group is growing, thanks to Catalonia’s secessionist bid, and new members are in their late teens early 20s.
Spain’s GI said Franco’s dictatorial legacy has been an obstacle for the Spanish far-right. Though there is no official number, Franco’s government killed an estimated 50,000 to 125,000 from 1939 to 1950.
Franco also attempted to homogenise Spain by outlawing minority languages and public displays of minority cultures.
Catalonia, along with other regions with minority cultures, such as Galicia and the Basque country, were most affected by these policies.
Spain’s GI belongs to a network of ethno-nationalist groups that are gaining prominence throughout Europe and the US under the banner of white identity.
These groups wish to preserve the cultural purity of white-majority regions and are sometimes considered Islamophobic.
The first goal of Spain’s GI group is “is shining a light on the real problems of massive, uncontrolled immigration” and “the dangers of Islamic invasion”, the spokesperson said.
This “massive” immigration is putting a strain on the Spanish economy, the GI spokesperson said. They want “national preference – social security and job placement for Spaniards first,” to be Spanish policy.
According to Eurostat, the statistical office of the European Union, Spain was 13th in Europe for refugee acceptance. That year, Spain accepted 14,780 refugees, as compared with Germany’s 476,510 or Hungary’s 177,135 asylum-seekers.
Borras, the Catalan author and researcher, while it is true they want fewer immigrants, it is not what has united them.
Fear of an independent Catalonia has given the far-right – and mainstream right – a “greater good” for which to fight, he concluded.