Can Europe Make It?

Barcelona: how to share a city's 'success'

The ability to sustain the tension between the inside and the outside of the local institutions, between those who govern and those who are governed, is key for Barcelona citizens to regain their city. Español.

Joan Subirats
28 April 2015

The Sagrada Familia in Barcelona's eixample district. Flickr/Aldas Kirvaitis. Some rights reserved.The city of Barcelona has been, for the last 30 years, what could be called a success story. However, at this particular moment in time, the city is experiencing a fierce debate about who wins and who loses in relation to that success. In other words, a debate about what path has been followed in order to socially distribute costs and benefits of that success. There is an obvious correlation between this debate and the different tickets and political options contesting the upcoming local elections, due in May 24, which might remarkably alter the current political balances.

One of the issues under discussion links current problems (rising inequality, housing problems, job security, high unemployment among others) to decisions taken by former governments. The transition from Francoism to democracy at the local level was carefully prepared by an intellectual elite which was both well-connected internationally and well-rooted in the political parties and social movements that opposed Franco’s dictatorship. The slogan at the first local elections of the regained democracy (1979) was: “the people enter the city councils”.

In good measure, these elections anticipated the big change in leadership of the new democracy which the Socialist Party assumed in 1982. In 1986 Barcelona won the nomination to host the 1992 summer Olympics, a success that allowed the revamping of the city taking advantage of the substantial flow of investment, both public and private, triggered by the event.

The city had a solid base: the avant-garde Cerdà Plan setting up a high-quality urban grid which allows good mobility; an attractive location by the sea; a typically Mediterranean fair weather; a vibrant artistic and cultural milieu, and an energetic social fabric highly involved in city affairs. At the same time, the historic conflict between Catalonia’s national mindset and the traditional centralist practice of governments in Madrid fostered a feeling of urban pride and belonging that was clearly identifiable during the successful 1992 Olympic Games.

The social and political consensus surrounding the Olympics was truly remarkable, and so was the political capacity of the institutions to steer the investment process and the public-private partnerships. And yet, after the celebration of the Games, and the attendant huge investment, the climate of consensus deteriorated and the room for maneuver of the public-institutional leadership began to shrink in front of the growing pressures from the market, which had discovered the huge potentialities of the city in the emerging context of global cities.

A separation grew between government and local elites on the one side, and social movements and entities on the other. Little could be done through initiatives such as the Universal Forum of Cultures 2004, a new international mega-event that was never understood by a good part of the city, to bridge that divide.

The tension between social cohesion and the tourist bubble

Today, Barcelona is struggling to deal with the tensions spawned by the economic crisis, unable to find in the tourist bubble a solid ground for recovery. The direction taken by the last local governments, reinforced by the current government of Mayor Xavier Trias, from the nationalist-conservative party Convergència i Unió – CiU (Convergence and Union), has been increasingly questioned, raising doubts about the city’s social cohesion. Indeed, internal inequality has grown between the richer and poorer districts (accounting for up to seven-fold imbalances in family income levels, and up to eight years difference in life expectancy). The number of citizens that do not participate in local elections has grown (47% abstention at the last local elections in 2011, with conspicuous differences between neighborhoods: in the richer districts, participation was over 70% while in the poorer districts it fell to approximately 40%).

It goes without saying that the benefits from the tourist bubble (more than 8 million visitors and more than 15 million overnight stays in 2014; the city ranks second in the world in cruise-ship visitors) are not equally shared among the different social sectors. Pressure from hotels and tourist apartments is prompting gentrification processes in the city centre, replacing daily shopping stores with tourist-oriented spaces. Local public investment has focused on strengthening the main tourist axes, neglecting other areas. Not enough has been done to reduce air pollution in the city, a substantial part of which is being produced by the large cruise-ships docked at the port with their engines running all through their stay. 

Barcelona has been at the top of Spanish cities in terms of the number of home evictions, and the number of its citizens unable to pay for their water, gas and electricity bills has increased. The number of families struggling to make ends meet has been steadily growing, and the increased budgets for social services fail to match current job insecurity and the drop in salaries. There are no indications that Barcelona’s local government takes into account these situations, or that it is confronting the economic elites which are clearly conditioning the future of the city.

The local government takes refuge in the idea that today the city is more international than ever and that it must remain open to the world, focusing on congresses and special events designed to this end. But although nobody wants to “close” the city, many are expressing worries about the sharing of the city’s success, and what are its effects on laying the ground for a decent and socially cohesive life.

Open-ended elections

Against this background, the upcoming local elections of May 24 constitute a defining moment. They will take place in a fully-fledged general crisis of the Spanish political system, severely affected by major corruption cases, in a particularly tense moment regarding the territorial governance model, at a time when the embryonic economic recovery is not yielding yet concrete consequences for the precarious situation of the vast majority of the population. These elections catalyze therefore many doubts and hopes.

There are multiple signs pointing that the two big political parties that have traditionally concentrated votes and power in Spain stand to lose a lot of seats and stakes. It is also apparent that the new political forces, Podemos and Ciudadanos, can take advantage of the huge vote losses affecting the People’s Party and the Socialist Party, and thus radically alter the existing balances of power.

But in Barcelona all of this has special features. To the general situation should be added the so-called “sovereignist” conflict: the fact that a majority of Catalans want to decide about their future, much in the same way as Scots did some months ago. On the other hand, the strength that social movements have accumulated over the last few years has resulted in the construction of a political alternative that seeks to wrest back control over the city’s institutions and strengthen the capacity of public and collective leadership.

So, by the end of June 2014, Guanyem (We shall win) was publicly launched under the leadership of activist Ada Colau. With a background in the powerful movement against massive evictions triggered by mortgage defaults, the Plataforma d’Afectats per la Hipoteca – PAH (Mortgage Affected Citizens Platform), she stepped in to propose a confluence of transformative political forces in order to recover local institutions and promote a fair and honest way of governing and doing politics, both within and without local government. From this first move, Barcelona en Comú (Barcelona for All) was born in Autumn, bringing together Catalan “sovereignist” forces such as Procés Constituent (Constituent Process), the red-green coalition Iniciativa per Catalunya (Initiative for Catalonia), and Podemos. This is the major novelty in the upcoming local elections in Barcelona.

The big issues at stake are: How to deal with the social emergency situation brought about by the crisis? How to reclaim and defend endangered social rights? How to prevent (through fair wages, council housing plans, guaranteed child education,…) precariousness and the dangers of social exclusion in large swaths of the population? How to ensure access to basic public goods such as water and energy? How to draw up an urban and democratic regeneration plan capable of transforming local government and keeping citizen mobilization alive through the idea of a public commons over and above the institutions: a Barcelona en comú.

The proposition has mobilized a lot of people, many ideas and proposals, and it is expected that it will be able to get to the polls many citizens who decided not to vote in the last elections, precisely in those districts of the city where the harmful effects of the crisis have been suffered most acutely.

What are the chances for Barcelona en Comú on May 24? All the available opinion polls suggest that the fight for who comes first will be fought by the nationalist-conservative CiU currently at the helm of the city, and the progressive Barcelona en Comú. Probably, neither will have an absolute majority and, therefore, postelection agreements and alliances will be needed. This is why who comes first is consequential.

What is increasingly clear to the activists and citizens who have launched and promoted Barcelona en comú is that, in order to truly change things in the city, to win the elections and take office, important as these may be, simply will not suffice.

The ability to sustain the tension between the inside and the outside of the local institutions, between those who govern and those who are governed, is key to make it possible for Barcelona citizens to regain their city. Theirs is the quest for a more equitable share of wealth and life opportunities, and to preserve a city which is open to the world and embodies innovation and solidarity. 

If you enjoyed this article then please consider liking Can Europe Make it? on Facebook and following us on Twitter @oD_Europe

Get weekly updates on Europe A thoughtful weekly email of economic, political, social and cultural developments from the storm-tossed continent. Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData