One of many fine examples of Catalan Modernista architecture to be found in Barcelona is the Mercat del Born. For almost a century following its completion in the 1870s this striking building at the heart of the historic Born neighbourhood housed the city’s main wholesale market. Eventually, however, demand outstripped its capabilities, and business was moved to a larger and more accessible site out towards the airport. Following its closure in 1977 the old market building lay abandoned for 25 years while urban planners and local politicians pondered over its plump carcass.
Throughout the early years of my time in Barcelona I only ever saw the building from the outside, and so, like many others, I was curious to see what would happen when, in 2002, a formal plan was finally announced to house a new provincial library beneath the roof of the original structure. What happened, however, was that work soon came to halt, as excavation of the site’s foundations revealed ruins dating back to the early 1700s.
The first decade of the eighteenth century had seen the major European powers locked in war over who would succede to the Spanish throne. The outcome proved to have enormous consequences for Catalonia, which having backed the Hapsburg pretender rather than the victorious House of Bourbon, saw its centuries-old political institutions dismantled. As for Barcelona, the city was laid siege to and finally surrendered to the forces of Felipe V on 11 September 1714. One of the things that the Bourbon monarch then ordered was the building of a new military citadel just beyond the old city walls, and in the process of its construction much of the old maritime quarter known as La Ribera was razed to the ground. Almost three hundred years later, however, part of the Ribera re-emerged from beneath the abandoned Born market, and the people of modern-day Barcelona were offered a further reminder of the city’s political history. There was no way that a contemporary Catalan government could cover up a site of such significance, and so a new plan was drawn up that involved preserving the ruins within a public museum space around which, and under the same roof, a new cultural centre would be built. The restored building, ruins and all, was finally inaugurated on 11 September 2013, the National Day of Catalonia and the 299th anniversary of the fall of Barcelona.
Given its historical significance and symbolic value as a place of transformation it is perhaps not surprising that when parliamentary elections were held in Catalonia on 27 September 2015 the pro-independence coalition Junts Pel Sí (Together for Yes) chose the Born Cultural Centre as the place to set up its election-night headquarters. A stage was erected on the pedestrianized area that fronts the building, and it was from there that the then-president Artur Mas addressed the cheering crowd. Amidst the jubilation, however, there were two major obstacles to be faced. One was that the coalition had fallen short of an absolute majority and so needed to seek the support of a smaller pro-independence party that had chosen to remain outside the coalition, a party whose leaders had made clear their opposition to Mas being sworn in as a returning president. The other was the intransigence of Spain’s central government towards any restructuring of the relationship between Catalonia and the Spanish state. For these reasons alone, I couldn’t help feeling, as I watched Mas’s victory speech on Catalan television, that the most he could really offer his supporters was hope.
On Thursday 15 October, less than three weeks later, Artur Mas appeared before the Spanish Supreme Court, having been accused by the Madrid government of what it considered an anti-constitutional act: on 9 November 2014 he had permitted a public “consultation” (a formal referendum had been prohibited) in which the Catalan people were invited to express their opinion regarding a future independent Catalonia. As I write this, no-one really knows what the outcome of this process will be, but needless to say, a president has yet to be named for the new Catalan parliament.
On the afternoon of the day that Mas was testifying before the Supreme Court I caught the bus into the centre of Barcelona. A crisp morning had given way to a bright and warm autumn day, and the streets were thick with tourists and locals going about their business. I ambled my way through the crowds and after thirty minutes or so I reached the cobbled street that leads to the main entrance of the Born Cultural Centre. Like those Catalans who had gathered here on 27 September I had come with the aim of hearing a politician speak, except the man in question was neither Catalan nor still in office. Yanis Varoufakis spent barely six months as finance minister of the Greek government that was elected in January 2015, although his resignation over the terms of the third bailout plan has simply shifted the focus of his engagement with the problems being faced not just by Greece but by the European Union as a whole. He had been invited to Barcelona to speak on the question of identity in Europe, and entry to the event, in which he would be interviewed by a well-known Catalan TV presenter, was free and on a strict first come, first served basis. With hindsight, I should have guessed that turning up an hour and a half before the scheduled start would be too late, but I hadn’t imagined that so many people would be there. By the time I arrived, however, a queue of hundreds was snaking its way along the front of the building, around its eastern corner and off into the distance. It was clear that I wasn’t going to make the cut for entry into the 300-seater auditorium, and although a sign had been put up saying that the talk would be streamed live onto a large screen visible from other areas of the building, I decided against joining the queue.
I loitered for a while, observing people’s expressions, their body language. Security guards were positioned at various points to make sure the growing line remained orderly, but they had little to do. The people gathering here had come not to cause trouble but to hear what might be done about it. For there is a lot of trouble out there. Just as there was three centuries ago, there is a struggle going on over how Europe should be governed – and by whom. As I headed off to catch my bus, none the wiser as to the mess we’re in, I wondered whether those who would soon get to hear Varoufakis speak would drift away later with more than a message of hope ringing in their ears. I hope so, for all our sakes.