Move over, independence! In Catalonia, migration takes center stage

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RIPOLL, Spain — In Catalonia, the issue of independence from Spain has hogged the political limelight for years. Now the focus is shifting to immigration.

The emergence of a new far-right, pro-independence and anti-migrant party, plus the fallout from Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s deal with the pro-independence Junts per Catalunya party in order to stay in power, have resulted in a hardening of language of migration which mirrors that seen elsewhere across the bloc.

In January, Junts announced that it had won concessions from the Spanish government that would give the region control of its “migratory flows.” Details of that deal remain hazy and Sánchez’s Socialists have played it down, but it came as the right-of-center Junts has been hardening its stance on the issue.  

Last September, the party’s de facto leader, Carles Puigdemont, outlined migration as a concern, stating that Catalonia has “the highest level of immigration in the whole [Iberian] Peninsula, at 16.2 percent” of the total population.

Junts’ secretary-general, Jordi Turull, meanwhile, has appeared to link immigration to crime.

“Not acting against repeat-offender criminals who have been living here, whether it’s for the last two weeks or for eight generations, jeopardizes co-existence and social cohesion,” he told Junts’ executive.

This jars with the approach to foreign arrivals of Junts and other pro-independence parties when the independence question was dominating the political arena. Although Junts’ previous incarnation, Convergència, once took a relatively tough line on immigration, by 2010, when tensions with Madrid were on the rise, that had changed.

“The foreigners living in Catalonia went from being a risk to an opportunity, at least in theory,” as nationalists saw the new arrivals as potential supporters of independence, said journalist and commentator Lola García, of La Vanguardia newspaper.

But now, she said, for some nationalists, “immigration has gone back to being a risk for Catalan culture rather than an opportunity.”

Rise of the right

The focal point of the change in language of migration has been the town of Ripoll, in the Catalan interior, where in last May’s local elections a new radical-right pro-independence force, Aliança Catalana, was the runaway winner.

Ripoll’s mayor, Sílvia Orriols, has since become the figurehead for an uncompromising brand of anti-immigrant Catalan nationalism.

Orriols identifies Muslim immigrants as a particular threat to Catalan identity. She told POLITICO that a 2017 terrorist attack that killed 16 people and which was carried out by young men of Moroccan origin from the town was “evidence that this whole part of the population do not integrate in our country but rather they attack our rights and freedoms — and we cannot allow that.”

In last year’s election in Ripoll, Aliança Catalana’s gains were made at the expense of Junts, which lost more than half of its seats | Josep Lago/AFP via Getty Images

“I think we’re too late with this,” she said of immigration numbers in Catalonia. “We have reached limits which are difficult to reverse and the longer we wait the more difficult it will be to reverse it all. It’s now or never.”

The mayor has been accused of making it more difficult for immigrants to register in Ripoll town hall, preventing them from gaining access to services such as health care and education. She says she is merely enforcing existing rules. Orriols has also called for the withdrawal of halal food from schools although, according to the provincial authority, no such meals are currently provided in the town.

Her anti-Muslim rhetoric chimes with that of the far-right Vox, although that appears to be where the similarities between the two parties end.

“Vox wants to destroy Catalonia and we want to save it,” said Orriols, who insisted on answering questions in Catalan rather than Spanish.

Controlling immigration and achieving secession are, she said, one and the same thing.

“The key issue is the survival of Catalans and Catalonia and in order for the Catalans and Catalonia to survive, we must achieve independence and control our own borders,” she said.

Her separatist views make Puigdemont’s hard-line Junts look comparatively tame, and she described the contentious amnesty for nationalists he has been negotiating with the Spanish government as “candy to trick Catalans” and “a surrender.”

In last year’s election in Ripoll, Aliança Catalana’s gains were made at the expense of Junts, which lost more than half of its seats. Orriols says that result, along with smaller gains her party has made in other Catalan towns, has prompted Junts to start talking tough on immigration.

“They adopt our rhetoric,” she said. “But they don’t do it on principle, but rather for electoral reasons.”

With the EU election in June and a Catalan parliamentary election due by early next year, the region’s parties are already positioning themselves. Junts is vying to return to the regional government, which it has not been a part of since 2022.

Although the deal between Junts and Sánchez has dominated Spanish politics recently, support for secession among Catalans has dipped to 41 percent, according to a recent poll, and pro-independence parties lost ground in July’s general election.

José Pablo Ferrándiz, head of public opinion in Spain for polling firm Ipsos, said that with independence no longer an immediate aim for Catalans, space has opened up for other debates.

Immigration has remained a relatively marginal issue in broader Spanish politics, despite the arrival of 56,852 undocumented migrants in the country last year | Marcos Moreno/AFP via Getty Images

“It is significant that Junts has sought to take control of the immigration issue because it’s a tool that it can use in the Catalan elections as a way of attracting certain voters,” he said.

Immigration has remained a relatively marginal issue in broader Spanish politics, despite the arrival of 56,852 undocumented migrants in the country last year, most of them Sub-Saharans who reached the Canary Islands by boat from Africa. Vox, meanwhile, has tended to focus on North African minors, who are distributed across the mainland and who it frequently links to criminality. 

According to Catalonia’s Statistics Institute, there are 36 towns in the region where foreigners make up more than a quarter of the population, although Ripoll is not one of them. A poll last year showed that 60 percent of Catalans believe there is too much immigration, rising to 64 percent among Junts voters.

However, there is little sign that the left-leaning parties in Catalonia are following Aliança Catalana’s lead on this issue.

“It seems to me that Junts per Catalunya and the Catalan right are making the same mistake as the Popular Party on the Spanish right: letting the far right set the agenda,” said Salvador Illa, leader of the Catalan wing of Sánchez’s Socialist Party, the main opposition force in the region.

The pro-independence Catalan Republican Left (ERC), which governs the region in a minority, has accused Junts of “encouraging hate speech and the far right”.

Víctor Colomer, a Catalan journalist, says he has noticed an upswing in anti-immigrant and particularly Islamophobic sentiment in pro-independence circles.

“I hear a lot of very worrying comments,” he said. “The moment a Catalan, pro-independence Donald Trump arrives, he’s going to absolutely clean up.”