BARCELONA — Alfred Bosch, a member of the Barcelona City Council from the left-wing, pro-independence Esquerra Republicana party, sees Catalonia’s referendum on independence in dramatic terms. “The legality of the whole process is not the main issue,” he told me when we met last month. “Was apartheid legal? Yes. Was it legitimate? No.” he continued. “Was the lack of women’s rights legal? Yes. Does that mean it was legitimate? No. The lack of civil rights, was that legal? Yes. Was it legitimate? No. The fact that we cannot vote for our future, is that legal? Yes. But is it legitimate? No,” he said.

I looked around. We were in Spain, a fairly new yet vibrant democracy, in Barcelona, one of the wealthiest cities in one of the wealthiest provinces in Europe, a city whose biggest challenge in recent years has been contending with mass tourism. The comparison with South Africa under apartheid seemed morally outrageous, and I told him so. “We’re not talking about social disparities, we’re talking about political obstacles on legitimate issues,” he answered. Outside, banners with yellow ribbons reading, “Free the Political Prisoners” were hung from the facades of public buildings.

The referendum was considered illegal by Spanish authorities who, after it passed and prompted an independence declaration, moved to disband Catalonia’s regional parliament and arrest several Catalan politicians and civic leaders. This week, a Spanish court withdrew international arrest warrants for Carles Puigdemont, the head of the Catalan government, and four other politicians who had fled to Belgium. Other political and civic leaders remain in Spanish jails and have been barred from participating in the campaign for December 21 snap regional elections, which began this week.

That many supporters of independence have come to see the jailed leaders as martyrs is a powerful and volatile dynamic in the campaign. Much hinges on whether pro-independence parties gain a majority. Even if they don’t—and new polls this week suggest they might not—the issue won’t be settled, since the independence camp’s sense of outrage and grievance at the central government will not easily die down.

It’s a strange situation. The independence camp won the referendum held on October 1—out of 5.3 million Catalonians, 2.2 million voted, and of them, 90 percent voted “yes,” according to the Catalan government— and yet the referendum also failed. Much to the separatists’ dismay, the European Union, a community of nation-states, not restive provinces, did not bless Catalonia’s declaration of independence. And the Spanish government quickly sent a clear message: Spain was a united country and would not tolerate breakaway regions.

Susana Vera / Reuters

But the images seen around the world of some Spanish police officers beating up voters at polling places made the center-right government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy look as repressive, autocratic, and insensitive as the independence camp had long said it was, creating a wave of sympathy—including from Catalans who had previously opposed independence. Catalan politicians may have sold their citizens impossible dreams, but the government in Madrid had offered no counter-narrative besides appealing to the law. It had become a match between utopians and disciplinarians. Spain is not South Africa, nor does it appear to have a Mandela—a leader with the moral authority to propose a political solution acceptable to both sides.  

I had come to Barcelona, that sunny, cosmopolitan city on the sea, to try to understand what, precisely, the independence camp wanted. Was the movement going forwards or backwards, now that the Spanish government had rolled back most of the autonomy Catalonia had gained in recent decades? Was this a local brouhaha that would soon blow over, or a fissure in the European project that might never heal? Were we looking at a tragedy, a comedy, or a farce? The answer to all those questions may effectively be yes. Although the referendum had not achieved independence, I found the independence camp even more committed to the cause—however vague its goals and however divided it was on other issues, including economic policy.

The situation in Catalonia may be unique and even baroque, but it fits larger patterns: an economic crisis that has upended traditional political parties, grassroots social-media-driven activism, filter bubbles, political corruption. It’s a local issue gone international——and one that could threaten the cohesion of the European Union. If Catalonia breaks away, would Italy’s wealthy northern Lombardy and Veneto regions aim to follow? Or the Flemish parts of Belgium? Or the French island of Corsica, where a nationalist coalition just won 45 percent of the vote in the first round of regional elections? And yet—the way some supporters of Catalan independence see it—the European Union is a product of the post-nation state world, so why not let Europe embrace regions, not just central governments?

As Bosch’s remarks made clear, the Catalan independence-seekers have come to see their clash with the Spanish state as a civil- and human-rights issue, not just a longstanding cultural movement by a group with a shared history and language. Whenever I’d ask Catalan independence-seekers what exactly they wanted, the answer that came back most often wasn’t more money—Catalonia has around 16  percent of Spain’s population, contributes around 20 percent of its tax revenue, and receives 14 percent back for public expenses. It wasn’t more autonomy over infrastructure and investment, or even a way to preserve the Catalan language. It was a hunger for a kind of recognition.

“It’s a question of dignity, a question of respect,” said Esther Vera, the editor-in-chief of Ara, a Catalan-language daily newspaper that supports the independence cause, but had not wanted this referendum. A copy of Ara sat on the table. Its lead headline read “We Weren’t Prepared,” above a story in which Catalan leaders said they hadn’t fully thought through what would happen after the referendum. “We have not been pragmatic,” Vera said. “The fact of proclaiming independence was excessively sentimental.”

On November 11, I joined three generations of the Delgado family from Barcelona in a pizzeria ahead of a large demonstration. All were wearing homemade yellow ribbons as a sign of support for the politicians and civic leaders imprisoned after the referendum. Silvia Delgado, 48, a gastroenterologist who worked for several years at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, told me she had been interested in the independence movement for years but grown more involved in 2010, when Spain’s Constitutional Court struck down a 2006 statute granting Catalonia slightly more autonomy on economic and juridical questions. The court had removed several clauses, including one that called Catalonia “a nation,” not just a region.

Back then, in 2010, it was the height of the economic crisis, and Delgado thought self-rule might make Catalonia’s universities better at a time when Spain was cutting their funding. But what about now? I asked. What would independence look like? “We don’t know, and at this point we don’t care,” Silvia said. Things looked worse than they did before the referendum, but she felt united with her compatriots in the struggle, faced with a clear antagonist: Madrid. She wanted a chance to vote in a legal referendum. “I don’t know if we’ll have a better country, but maybe we can try. We can start from scratch,” she said. “We’ve been trying to influence Madrid, and it hasn’t worked.”

Delgado’s whole family supported the independence cause: Her father, Manel, 75, who is originally from Andalucía, is a retired businessman who worked in the medium-sized businesses that are the backbone of Catalonia’s economy (he dismissed reports of businesses leaving the region as fear-mongering from Madrid); her mother, Pepa, 72, who is from Catalonia and was a homemaker; her brother, Oriel, 42, a lawyer, and another brother Xavi, 45, a taxi driver. Manel and Pepa told me they used to vote Socialist but now supported Esquerra Republicana.

After lunch, the Delgado family draped Catalan flags around their shoulders, tying them at the neck, like capes, to head to the demonstration. An air of conviviality, of civic religion, hung about the crowd. When helicopters from the Spanish national police, as distinct from Catalonia’s regional police, circled above, Pepa gave them the finger. I thought about her gesture later when I read thinly sourced reports in the Spanish press warning about Russian bots working in support of Catalan independence. Bots or no bots, it seemed to me that the leaders of Europe should instead take notice that middle-class grandmothers had become such militants.  

At the demonstration, the Delgados met up with friends—all middle-class professionals, all left-leaning. Enric Celaya, 61, a physicist who works in robotics, pointed to the corruption scandals roiling Rajoy’s Popular Party. Also, he said, “the mentality of the Spanish people is very closed and retrograde.” Catalonia had voted to ban bullfighting, for instance, but the Spanish Constitutional Court had overruled the decision. (Bullfighting may not be illegal in Catalonia, but no bullfights are organized there anymore and the main bullfighting ring in Barcelona has been turned into a shopping mall.) The independence-seekers see their cause as a progressive separatism. “The concept of nationalism as Nazis is a wrong concept,” Oriol Guell, 49, an engineer, told me at the demonstration. What was driving the movement he said, was “the need of a real state that works for the benefit of the people.”

From afar, Catalan nationalism seems to share much in common with the economic and social discontent that brought about Brexit in Britain. And yet the dynamics here are different. Unlike the voters who supported Brexit, who tend to be lower down on the socioeconomic ladder, the supporters of the Catalan independence movement tend to be middle class. Imagine if the Bay Area wanted to split from California, or if California wanted to secede from the United States. “Disaffection is most prominent, ironically, among the better educated, and I think that is really the interesting question,” Charles Powell, the director of the Elcano Royal Institute, a Madrid think tank, told me. “I think you could argue this is a reaction of a very well-established elite which is beginning to feel that things are starting to get out of control because of globalization and because of Europeanization.”

Meanwhile, the reaction from many Europeans, he said, is to consider the independence movement “a rebellion of rather well-heeled spoiled brats.” The Catalans have also pursued a quite successful 30-year process of nation-building through school textbooks in Catalan and Catalan media and civic organizations that benefited from public funds, he said. The demonstration that day had been organized by Òmnium Cultural and Assemblea Nacional Catalana, two such organizations, which have been leading the charge for independence, and whose leaders remain in jail.

A few days later, in Madrid, I mentioned the size of the demonstration crowd, which the Barcelona police estimated at 750,000, to Íñigo Méndez de Vigo y Montoyo, the Spanish government spokesman. “750,000? It’s impossible,” he said. He placed the crowd at around 200,000 people. The disputes over crowd size—and the media coverage of the crisis—have come to mirror the crisis itself: two parallel realities with little middle ground. (Outside watchdogs, including the Columbia Journalism Review, have criticized El País, the country’s leading daily, based in Madrid, for a pro-government line they say has distorted its news coverage.)

Méndez de Vigo also disputed the idea that there had been no dialogue between Catalonia’s politicians and the central government—they had been in talks since 2012, he said. “The dialogue is whether you can find a solution for certain political aspirations and accommodate. This is what politics is about,” he said. “But if the other party only wants one thing and that one thing is independence, the government doesn’t want and cannot give it because we have a constitution and the right of self-determination is not in it. Dialogue is very difficult.” Indeed.

And yet what about the images of Spanish police roughing up voters? Wasn’t Madrid’s response heavy-handed? Here Méndez de Vigo bristled a bit. “It happened because the referendum is illegal and the judge told them, ‘Avoid this illegal referendum,’” he said. “These things happen,” he continued. “We don’t like these images, but it happened. I think afterwards it was over-exaggerated. Two people injured.” I asked him if the officers seen roughing up people had been identified and disciplined. He paused. “I can’t tell you. I don’t know,” he said.

The government could have handled things with more finesse. And yet how was it supposed to hold together a country of disparate regions?

When Méndez de Vigo was a member of the European Parliament, he helped draft the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union. He seemed distressed by what was happening in Catalonia. “We created Europe to avoid this kind of nationalism. We know what happens with it,” he told me.

Méndez de Vigo comes from an old aristocratic family. He mentioned the Siege of Barcelona in 1713-1714, in which Catalonia had fought and lost against Spain and the Bourbons of France. He disliked how the Catalan independence movement had come to see that battle as a moment when Catalonia had lost its autonomy to Spain, an idea he considered revisionist history. “My ancestors fought in that war for Catalonia,” he said. “It was a war of influence.” He said the Catalan politicians had been telling “Lies about the past, and about the present.”

I thought back to a word Esther Vera, the editor of Ara, had used to describe the attitude of the Spanish government: hidalguía. The term, which is key in Don Quixote, implies a kind of aristocratic pride and imperiousness. The hidalgos, Spanish nobles, were the backbone of Spain for centuries. When I met Méndez de Vigo, I understood what she meant.

The government had exacerbated the crisis. “Five years ago, if they had given a referendum, the ‘No’ vote would have won and the issue would have been put to rest for a generation,” said John Carlin, a British-Spanish journalist who lives between Barcelona and London. He opposes Catalan independence but says the government’s “continually abusive, insulting rhetoric” toward Catalonia has only stirred up animosity.

Today, the debate over Catalonia goes in endless circles. Catalans say they want a legal referendum on independence, just as Scotland and Québec have held in the past. (In both cases, the independence bloc lost.) Spain says that’s impossible; it can’t hold a referendum on independence unless it changes its constitution, which specifies that Spain is “indivisible.” A change would require the support of two-thirds of the Spanish Parliament and then approval through a nationwide referendum. That’s not likely to happen; Parliament has a strong anti-independence majority.

So now what? “This is a football culture. No one wants a draw,” said Miquel Iceta, the ebullient, openly gay leader of Catalonia’s opposition Socialist party—which opposes independence and has supported the conservative Spanish government on institutional, not political, grounds. “We won’t accept that a regional government breaks the constitution,” he told me. In recent years, support for the Socialists has dropped dramatically, a victim of the economic crisis that has claimed centrist parties across Europe, although new polls this week show the Socialists are expected to gain seats in the December 21 elections.

There’s little that unites the pro-independence bloc, which contains a confusing mix of hard-left anti-globalists and free marketeers. “Are we with Milton Friedman or Rosa Luxembourg?” Xavier Vidal-Folch, a columnist for El País, wondered. The grouping was incoherent, he said, and naïve. Vidal-Folch’s great-grandfather had translated The Divine Comedy into Catalan. When he was growing up under Franco, he was forbidden from speaking the language and is glad his grandchildren grew up speaking it in school. But he was opposed to independence and worried it was dividing Catalonia and Spain in dangerous ways.

The Barcelona-based film director Isabel Coixet knows something about that. She has become an outspoken voice against independence. When I met her, she told me she had decided to leave Barcelona, where she has lived most of her life. She didn’t like being called a fascist for not supporting the independence cause. “There are no nuances anymore. There’s no gray,” she said. “You’re with them or against them.”

We were sitting in a garden café with her friend Ramón De España, a columnist and author of a 2013 book called The Catalan Insane Asylum. He had a kind of eye-rolling world-weariness. “When people who aren’t oppressed feel they’re oppressed, it’s a comedy,” he said. “It’s offensive to the oppressed.” Coixet and De España are among the few cultural figures to come out openly against independence. In a politically toxic climate, they know other people agree with them, but are afraid to speak their minds. “There’s not a project for a new society. It’s confessional,” Coixet said. “What’s this new country going to be?”

It wasn’t always like this. Depending on whom you talk to, the crisis in Catalonia began (bear with me here) in: 1492, the heyday of Ferdinand and Isabella and the same Castilian hegemony and insistence on purity that produced the Spanish Inquisition; 1714, during the Siege of Barcelona; the late 1880s, with the advent of the “political Catalanism” movement; the Franco regime, when the Catalan language was outlawed, a historic grievance that still weighs heavily on the Catalan soul, even though it was reversed after the advent of Spanish democracy in 1978; 2010, when Spain’s Constitutional Court vetoed the statute granting Catalonia slightly more autonomy; or 2012, when Artur Mas, the then-president of Catalonia’s parliament, had a Road-to-Damascus conversion and embraced the independence cause—pointing the finger at Madrid for the region’s ills. The previous year, Mas had had to be airlifted by helicopter to the Catalan parliament on a day when it was surrounded by massive crowds protesting austerity measures. He had imposed them on the region during a financial crisis in which Spain lost 10 percent of its GDP, and from which it’s still recovering.

It’s clear the evolution of Mas’s party played a decisive role in the pro-independence camp’s support in Catalonia more than doubling, from around 17 percent in the 2012 regional elections to 48 percent in the last regional elections in 2015. And it was the promise of a non-binding referendum on independence that gained Mas’s party the coalition support of the hard leftists, who ultimately helped put Puigdemont, then mayor of the Catalonian city of Girona, at the head of the regional government.

When I met him in his office Barcelona, I asked Mas about this political evolution. “It was in June 2010,” he told me. “It was exactly when the Spanish Constitutional Court struck down the main articles of the Statute of Autonomy that the Catalan people had voted for four years before.” Then and there, he said, “I understood that the only way for Catalonia was one day to become a European independent country—taking into consideration that in the European Union, independence means inter-independence.”

Mas was suave and polished. I couldn’t imagine him in the same circles as the leftist idealists sharing the pro-independence bloc with him. In fluent English, he had his pitch down solid. “We would like to be Massachusetts,” he said. “Six million people. Good universities. Cutting-edge innovation system.” This sounded nice enough, but the European Union is not structured the same way as the United States is. And what would the morning after independence look like? I asked. “To turn Catalonia into the Mediterranean Denmark would mean the task of a generation, not of a mandate,” he answered. But what of the present? Mas told me he would have done things differently. “A referendum wasn’t in my roadmap,” he said. But he no longer runs the party, Puigdemont does. What happens now? “Nobody knows,” Mas said. The only thing we know for sure, he said, is there will be elections on December 21.

Ahead of the elections, the parties are jostling for position and trying to lay out their platforms. Puigdemont recently gave an interview from Brussels saying he thinks there are other alternatives to declaring independence, but he didn’t go into detail. This suggests he’s walking back a bit, or at least open to more dialogue. But from his prison cell outside Madrid, Oriol Junqueras, the leader of Esquerra Republicana, continues to call for independence—and has decided his party won’t run on the same ticket as Puigdemont's. It’s hard to keep track of the plot since the actors keep changing their lines.

Meanwhile, the government in Madrid has been calling attention to the economic consequences, the businesses leaving the region, to make clear that a lot is at stake. It seems to want the independence movement to fizzle if not collapse under the weight of its own internal contradictions. “I hope they will not win,” Méndez de Vigo told me. “I hope they’ll pay in votes for what they’ve done to the Catalonian people. “I hope people will say ‘We don’t want people to govern us who break the society in half.’”

No one I spoke to seemed to know what would unfold. The pro-independence leaders can’t really walk back the popular sentiment, and if their bloc wins, they’ll have to figure out how to satisfy their constituents. For now, the pro-independence movement has been peaceful. “I’m afraid at some point it could not be as peaceful as it has been,” Esther Vera, the newspaper editor, had told me. Where would the violence come from? “I don’t want ever to think of it, it is very far from reality,” she said. She was more afraid that the elections wouldn’t produce a clear majority for or against independence.

The government officials I spoke to in Madrid told me they were confident Spain would sort things out. Somehow. Two paraphrased the Spanish writer and politician José Ortega y Gasset, who before the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s had written something that still rings true today: “The Catalan problem will never be solved, but it will be managed.”