The collapse of the economy and the corruption scandals destroyed the voters’ trust in CiU; the coalition, in turn, reacted by blaming the Spanish government for all that ailed Catalonia. The CiU called the first big independence demonstration in September 2012 in the middle of the recession, just as accusations of corruption against Pujol and CiU were gaining ground. Since then, the CiU has cut social spending while increasing funding for separatist organizations.
Despite this effort to wrap itself in the flag of Catalan nationalism, CiU has never regained its popular support. Years of stoking the fires of populism and nationalism convinced the Catalan nationalists that CiU/PDECAT is too corrupt and accommodating of Madrid—never mind the fact that it has been the major force behind the quest for more self-rule since 1980, and for independence since 2012. For moderates, PDECAT has become too ideological, and for the ideologues, too moderate. For many Catalan nationalists, a Convergente—the colloquial name for a CiU, and, now, a PDECAT voter—is the rough equivalent of a “Republican in name only” (or a “RINO”) for a Trump Republican.
Some of the implications of this extreme populist swing are grotesque. While Catalonian separatists lack their own ‘Pizzagate,’ some in the movement boast of a “conspiracy history” of sorts through which they reinvent Catalonia’s past—a supposed golden era of independence and prosperity to be restored. And what a golden era it was, if you believe institutions like the New History Institute, which aims to recover the “true History” of the region, one that has supposedly been “systematically distorted and manipulated since the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries” by Spain. The institute claims, for instance, that Christopher Columbus was Catalan and not Italian, and that his first voyage to America in 1492 launched not from Andalusia but Catalonia. It also claims that Leonardo da Vinci, William Shakespeare, and Erasmus of Rotterdam were all Catalan. Such ludicrous claims serve a purpose: to reaffirm that Catalans possess a distinct culture and history, and that they have been victims “of the biggest robbery in History” by Spain.
The Institute has received financial support from the Catalan government and municipalities controlled by the nationalists. On a popular Catalan television news program in March 2012, Pujol praised the institute and its work. Two years later, then-Catalan vice-president and leader of ERC, Josep-Lluis Carod Rovira, attended a book signing of one of the heads of the institute and denounced the “bestial operation” undertaken by Spain to falsify history.
For many Catalan nationalists, independence seemed a fait accompli—Spain could not afford to resist, they believed. These nationalists fell under the spell of their politicians, who promised that the European Union would accept an independent Catalonia as a member, one with “the unemployment of Denmark, the infrastructure of the Netherlands, and the educative system of Finland,” as Artur Mas, the former Catalan president and leader of PDECAT, promised. Catalan nationalists did not bother to come up with a plan for countering Madrid’s quite predictable opposition.