“We Will Do It Again”

Yesterday, I took a day trip to Girona, a city in the Costa Brava region just a half hour outside of Barcelona by high-speed rail. The city has a beautiful medieval centre, but before even making it to that area, I noticed a significant difference between Girona and Barcelona. The city was covered in pro-independence flyers, graffiti, banners, and flags. Although widespread in Barcelona, there was a marked disparity between what you see in Barcelona, population 1.5 million, and in Girona, population 100,000. Later in this post I will discuss potential reasons why this is the case. Below are some images which highlight the pervasive pro-independence political speech in Girona.

In the image below, you will find the Catalan phrase, “Ho Tornarem a Fer,” which translates literally to “We will do it again.” The phrase, which only started appearing amongst Catalan political groups recently, comes from a speech by Jordi Cuixart, a pro-independence Catalan businessman and activist. Currently, Cuixart is serving a sentence of up to 15 years in prison under the charges of sedition and rebellion, attempting to overthrow the existing political order. He is one of several “political prisoners,” as they are called in Catalonia, currently imprisoned by the Spanish government. Outside observers, including Amnesty International, have declared these punishments unreasonable, and many here believe that the current socialist government in Madrid may move to release them or lessen their sentences.

Geographical Differences in Support for Independence

Several days ago, I had lunch with an American expatriate who lives in rural Catalonia with her husband, a native from the village. She recalled her experience on the day of the independence referendum — her region was spared from the more egregious police action, though helicopters flew overhead several times during the day which she believes was in an effort to intimidate potential voters. She explained that in Catalonia, the rural communities support independence more widely than urban communities, likely the reason for more noticeable signs of pro-independence activities in Girona. This is dissimilar to Scotland, where the reverse is actually true. There, the urban centers are in favor of independence, while rural areas are more skeptical of the need for such action.

Earlier in my travels, I met a young professional from Girona and asked for his thoughts on independence. When I mentioned that I had met Artur Mas, he quickly called him “good man.” He went on to say that he finds himself neutral on the issue of independence — he likes the idea of an independent Catalonia, but says that pro-independence parties have failed to explain how Catalonia would proceed after independence. This lack of direction and clarity makes him skeptical of any promises made by politicians about the benefits of independence.

Game of Thrones and Tourism Debate

While in Girona, I also took time to visit several locations used in the recent hit-television show, Game of Thrones. Since scenes were shot in the city just several years ago, tourism numbers have skyrocketed. Though a number of locals employed by the tourism industry are likely happy with the industry’s success, throughout the city you could find signs of a different sentiment. Phrases like, “Tourists are terrorists” and “A Tourist house is a house stolen from a local” were all over, which actually caught me off guard. Shouldn’t they be grateful for the economic boon of foreigners spending money at their restaurants, hotels, and businesses? Instead, it appears that for some, tourism, and its effects on housing prices, is more of a burden than an asset.

Below you can check out several side-by-side images. On the left are scenes from Game of Thrones, and on the right are images I captured of where the filming locations of each scene.


The Flags of Independence

A pro-independence march took place yesterday in Ayr, Scotland. Notice the red and yellow Catalan “Estelada” flags. (Source: The Herald Scotland)

Are those Catalan flags…in Scotland?

As you can see in the image above, since I’ve left Scotland, the pro-independence activists have continued to make their voices heard. This photo is from yesterday as tensions continue to ramp up after recent comments from Boris Johnson. The prospect of his assuming the role of Prime Minister seems to be unsettling many in Scotland, and pro-independence social media channels I have been following this summer seem to be more active than ever. I include this photo, however, not only to briefly update you on the happenings in Scotland, but to also draw your attention to the flags in the image. In the sea of blue Scottish flags, you will find a handful of blue, red, and yellow flags. This is the Catalan Estelada flag, and its presence in Scotland illustrates the sense of a bond and shared struggle between the two nations.

The Senyera and Estelada

On the left, you see the Senyera flag, the official flag of Catalonia. You can find this flying high above government buildings and museums throughout Barcelona. On the right, you see the Estelada flag, the flag representative of calls for an independent Catalonia. In Catalan, “Estelada” translates to “starry” in English, and you can clearly see the star on the left side. Inspired by the flag of Cuba which also features a triangle and star, the designer of the flag, Vicenç Albert Ballester, created the new symbol of resistance in the early 1900s. You will notice that a number of flags of nations formerly under Spanish rule have a similarly designed flag (Puerto Rico, Cuba, etc.).

A Day in Montserrat

On Friday, I visited Montserrat, a mountain range outside of Barcelona that is the home to Santa Maria de Montserrat Abbey. This Catholic abbey nestled high in the mountains (I had to take a train and a funicular to reach it) houses the Virgin of Montserrat, a black statue of Mary and the baby Jesus. Catholics travel from around the world to touch the statue, and, even as a non-Catholic, I joined in on the tradition. After waiting in line for 2 hours, I finally had a moment with the statue.

The mountain of Montserrat, a place at the intersection of Catalan history, nature, and religion, is held dearly by many Catalan nationalists.

Beyond its significance in the greater Catholic Church, the Virgin of Montserrat is also the patron saint of Catalonia. On the gate of the abbey in which the statue is displayed, you will find the quote: “Catalonia will be Christian or it will not exist.” This message represents the importance of religion to the Catalan identity, and as such, the mountain of Montserrat, a place at the intersection of Catalan history, nature, and religion, is held dearly by many Catalan nationalists. Adding to this significance, the monastery protected a number of political refugees during the rule of Franco, a time in which the Catalan culture and language was banned across the nation. For a time, it was one of the only places in Catalonia where you could hear people speaking their native tongue openly and without fear of oppression.

A Visit to the Palau del Parlament de Catalunya

Earlier this week, I had the unique opportunity of receiving a private behind-the-scenes tour of the Catalan Parliament. Located at the heart of Citadel Park, an expansive green space near the center of Barcelona, the Catalan Parliament is housed in a former military arsenal. My guide explained that in the late 1800s, over 100 years after it was built, the government converted the building into a royal palace. Although it was never used as a residence by a monarch, there are many remnants of its past purpose that are quite noticeable in the architecture and decor of the current structure. Many of the rooms intended for use as a royal palace have since been repurposed for use by the parliament. For example, the throne room now houses the main debate chamber used by members of parliament (see a picture of me standing in the room below).

The Epicenter of the 2017 Independence Vote

This room was the site of the passing of the Catalan declaration of independence of 2017, an event watched closely around the world. The resolution, which was the result of the overwhelming victory of independence in the illegal referendum earlier that year, was a failure. While Catalonia declared itself independent, the declaration was only meaningful if it received recognition from the international community. Needless to say, the world still views Catalonia as a part of Spain. Carles Puigdemont, the President of Catalonia at the time, was likely against the decision to make a unilateral declaration of independence based on an illegitimate vote. Eventually, however, he granted his party’s wish, a move which resulted in his exile in Belgium where he remains to this day.

The Catalan Parliament Today

The Catalan Parliament is made up of 135 members, each elected to four-year terms (sometimes less in the case of dissolution). In today’s parliament, 8 different political groups hold some number of seats in the Parliament, and the government is lead by Quim Torra, the current President of Catalonia. The Parliament is controlled narrowly by pro-independence parties, indicating significant support for independence in Catalonia even after the failed attempt just 2 years prior. As in Scotland, the Catalan Parliament enjoys a wide range of devolved powers and addresses many of these issues through committees. For example, the autonomous region has its own police force and is responsible for a number of matters including education, health, and culture. As you can see below, I visited one of the 5 committee rooms in the palace.

A committee room in the Palace of the Catalan Parliament.

I look forward to sharing more about the events of 2017, as well as those that led to calls independence, in future posts. Tomorrow, I leave the city to hike Montserrat, the location of a famous Catholic monastery nestled high in the mountains!

First Impressions of Spain and Catalonia

I have now been in Spain for one week. I began in Madrid, the largest city in Spain and the capital of the country, and have now made my way to Barcelona, Spain’s second most populous city and the capital of Catalonia. Catalonia is one of 17 autonomous communities in Spain (in addition to two autonomous cities, Ceuta and Melilla), all of which enjoy different sets of devolved powers, similar to those found in the Scottish Parliament.

Meeting the Former President of Catalonia

At this point, you might be starting to ask something along these lines: “European politics and independence movements are interesting things, but how did Joseph choose this as the focus of his summer?” One event that piqued my interest in the matter can be traced back to Duke’s campus. Last November, I attended a talk by Artur Mas, the former president of Catalonia, which was co-hosted by the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy and the Center for International and Global Studies. After his talk, I had the privilege of sitting down for dinner with Mas and several other professors and students. Mas presented the cause of Catalan independence as one of freedom and self-determination, and the interesting combination of left-wing politics and nationalism (which is typically associated with the right in America) left me with more questions that answers.

Artur Mas, the former president of Catalonia, speaking at Duke in November.

Catalonia: A General Overview

The historical relationship between Catalonia and Spain has been tense, most recently evidenced by events in 2017. On October 1, the Catalan government held a referendum on independence, asking the Catalan people: “Do you want Catalonia to become an independent state in the form of a republic?” Over 90% of ballots cast were “Yes,” in favor of independence, though the legality and accuracy of the election has been the subject of much debate over the past two years. Many of the Catalan officials behind the referendum have since been arrested, and Catalonia remains a part of Spain, at least for the time being.

One of my biggest challenges in studying this subject is the language barrier. Unlike in Scotland, where I could initiate political conversations with locals, in Catalonia, just ordering a meal can be a challenge. Most locals speak Spanish and Catalan (yes, they have their own language), and a significantly smaller percentage speak English. Fortunately, the recency of the independence referendum means there is ample evidence to explore around the city. For instance, take a look at these yellow ribbons found all over Barcelona, signifying solidarity with the Catalan leaders currently imprisoned.

The View of Independence in Madrid

During my short 5 days in Madrid, I did my best to explore the capital city and talk to locals about their opinion on the Catalan independence movement. On Wednesday I sat down with a college-aged Madrid native and picked his brain on the matter. Early on, it became clear that he believed the referendum was illegitimate. He explained that a decision to secede would affect all of Spain, and as such, felt it logically followed that all citizens of the country should have a vote on the matter. He also voiced concern for those in an independent Catalonia who were against independence, saying that a simple majority is insufficient to make such a substantial decision.

He shared his view that the politicians in Catalonia have engaged in brainwashing, spreading disinformation amongst their constituents to make it appear as if Catalonia is taken advantage of by the rest of Spain. Instead, he claimed that Madrid is the heart of the Spanish economy and that Catalonia benefits from its relationship with the Spain. Furthermore, he points out that Catalonia is one of Spain’s most autonomous regions, and any attempt to secede would only create problems for the region— they would no longer be members of the EU or UN. Theoretically, Catalonia could rejoin the EU after independence, but Spain holds the power to veto their membership, a move necessary to set an example for other regions considering a similar move. This is not dissimilar to the potential no-deal Brexit situation, as the ensuing economic downfall of Britain would dissuade other EU member states from attempting a similar move.

In the end, I asked for his thoughts on the most likely path forward. He predicts that current socialist leaders in Madrid will take a lenient approach in the handling of Catalan officials responsible for the referendum, leading to widespread dissatisfaction amongst the Spanish population. Soon after, the people will once again elect a conservative government, which he hopes will tighten controls on Catalonia and prevent a similar situation from happening again. 

Quotes from Locals on Scottish Independence

In this post, I will share several quotes from my conversations with locals during my time in Scotland. Whenever I had the chance, I would try to gather opinions from people in the country on the topics of Scottish independence, Brexit, and the political realities of their country. Below are a few noteworthy comments from my conversations, ranging from informal exchanges to sit-down interviews.

Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson, likely to be the next leader of the Conservative Party, is anything but popular in Scotland. During my time there, I only met one person who shared positive sentiments about Johnson. Many shared the belief that he is unintelligent, using words such as “buffoon” and “idiot” to describe him. If he becomes Prime Minister, this will, without a doubt, further excite the independence movement in Scotland.

Boris Johnson is effective and good at what he does, even if I disagree with him on policy. Right now in Scotland, people aren’t talking about the SNP or Conservatives, they are talking about Boris Johnson, or as I call him, “Boris Trump.”

EU Elections

As mentioned earlier, during one of my first days in Scotland, the country held their elections for EU Parliament. As this person said, the elections were much more significant this year than in years past. The Scottish National Party enjoyed a clear victory.

Today we vote in the EU elections. People are paying attention to what is happening which is unusual. 

Scottish Independence and Brexit

During my time in Scotland, it has become clear that Scottish independence and Brexit are tightly intertwined.

Politicians are putting party over country. Brexit was built on lies from criminal politicians. If this were a business, it would have imploded long ago.

A majority of the people I spoke with were against Brexit, and many, though not all, of these individuals viewed the UK’s departure from the EU as justification for another independence referendum.

After the initial referendum, people thought it was over. Then Brexit happened. Personally, I am against independence, but I am also against Brexit. 

Political Parties

The pro-independence Scottish National Party currently controls the government in Scotland and has worked towards greater devolution on matters such as education and social services for some time. SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon is the First Minister of Scotland, and I spoke with many people who were satisfied with her leadership.

[The most important issue to me] is free education. We have this, only in Scotland, thanks to the SNP. I once voted Labour but the SNP has become the best for the Scottish people.

The Parliament of the United Kingdom

Today I flew to Madrid, Spain, where I will am resuming my exploration summer. After spending the week in Madrid, the capital and political center of the country, I will travel to Barcelona where I will spend the final portion of my exploration summer. As I said earlier, there are still a number of topics I wish to address from my time in the United Kingdom, and today I will briefly talk about my time in London visiting the Parliament of the United Kingdom.

The Parliament is a bicameral legislature made up of three parts (no, that’s not a mistake): the House of Commons, the House of Lords, and the Monarch. The monarch must provide royal assent to any bill passed by the other two bodies, but this is primarily a ceremonial power. I visited both the House of Commons and the House of Lords during my short stop in London. A number of the locals I met in Scotland had strong opinions about the Parliament at Westminster, so I thought it would be helpful to see it for myself. Unfortunately, the business on the schedule the day I visited was unrelated to Brexit or any other issues which might pertain to Scottish independence. Instead debates were focused on the humanitarian crisis in Sudan and government benefits for caretakers in the United Kingdom.

The House of Commons is an elected body, chosen through a general election usually every 5 years. The leader of the political party with the largest number of elected members becomes the Prime Minister and resides at 10 Downing Street. The House of Lords, on the other hand, is made up of unelected officials, often appointed due to their expertise or hereditary standing. Many members of the House of Lords specialize in individual policy matters such as national defense or healthcare.

I stopped by 10 Downing Street to get a view of the PM’s residence.

Back in Scotland, the Parliament of the United Kingdom has been both a source of dissatisfaction and a potential area for compromise. A number of Conservative leaders (remember, they are against Scottish independence) have suggested the need for restructuring the Parliament at Westminster to better serve a Scotland remaining in the United Kingdom. One Conservative Member of Scottish Parliament, Murdo Fraser, outlined his idea of a quasi-federalist United Kingdom that could appease Scotland and restore functionality to the Parliament of the UK. His four primary goals include drafting a new charter of union, replacing the House of Lords with an elected body based on geographic representation, creating a new UK Council of Ministers, and forming a new legislative body for England, separate from the UK government (similar to the Scottish Parliament). You can read more about it here. I find his proposal to be quite compelling, and I think some variation of the plan will be pursued in an effort to keep Scotland in the United Kingdom should Brexit occur.

Finishing Up in Edinburgh

I just finished my last day in Scotland. I am taking a short break from exploration summer to spend time with family visiting in Europe. Next week, I head to Spain where I will spend the second half of the summer. I still have a number of thoughts about my time in Scotland that I will share in subsequent posts. Until I have time to write them, here are the topics I still plan on covering!

1. The UK Parliament System

2. The Economy of Scotland

3. Considerations and Challenges of an Independent Scotland

4. Takeaways from Conversations with Locals and My Prediction

Scottish-English Ties: A Historical Account

On Sunday I returned to Edinburgh from the State of Young People Summit at Facebook’s Headquarters in San Francisco. I may share more about that experience in a later post, but today I will focus on the history of Scotland, especially as it pertains to its relationship with England.

The Scottish Reformation

During the Protestant Reformation in Europe, Scotland underwent its own series of dramatic religious changes. Through the early 16th century, Scotland was predominantly Catholic, but this quickly changed with the help of theologian and reformist John Knox. Inspired by the actions of Martin Luther in Germany, Knox hoped to bring a new form of Christianity to Scotland, founding the Church of Scotland to replace the Catholic faith he believed to be both corrupt and misguided.

The reformation occurred around the time of Mary Stuart‘s reign, likely the most famous Scottish monarch ever. Born a Catholic and crowned as Queen of Scots at 6 days old, Mary moved to France where she spent her childhood and studied her Catholic faith. Shortly after marrying King Francis II of France, the couple returned to Scotland, where many were eager to meet their Queen, rumored to be both intelligent and beautiful. Mary arrived in the midst of significant religious turmoil, and, as a Catholic, some were suspicious of her reign. John Knox condemned her in many of his sermons, and Mary’s life quickly deteriorated into a series of unfortunate events. A short time after arriving in Leith (a port village near Edinburgh), her first husband died at the age of 16. Potential suitors from noble families across Europe began courting Mary, but she ended up falling in love with a man named Lord Darnley, her second cousin. Unfortunately for Mary, Darnely turned out to be a jealous drunk, and ended up murdering her secretary and confidant, David Rizzio. At the time of the murder, Mary was pregnant with their son, who was taken from her at shortly after birth and raised as a Protestant.

At this point, I will stop Mary’s story, though it continues to tragically unfold until she is beheaded at the hand of her sister, Queen Elizabeth of England. Meanwhile, Mary’s son was crowned King James VI of Scotland, and later, King James I of England (as Elizabeth had no children), uniting the two kingdoms. James was responsible for solidifying the dominance of Protestantism in Scotland and England and sponsored a new translation of the Bible, known today as the King James Version.

During my time here, I have visited several places where these events unfolded!

A Bad Investment and the Formal Union

In the late 1600s, the Scottish attempted to join the frenzy of colonization in North America, as England prevented Scotland from reaping benefits of its colonies across the Atlantic. The Scottish planned on founding a colony called Caledonia in Panama, and roughly 20% of Scotland’s wealth was invested into the plan, known as the Darien Scheme. Several expeditions were made, but complications related to nearby Spanish occupation, climate, inexperience, and disease rendered the attempted colonization a disastrous failure. Back home, Scotland found itself in financial ruin, and the nation was left unable to continue independently. To the dismay of many, the leaders of Scotland believed joining England was the only viable recourse, constituting anything but a voluntary agreement. In the early 1700s, about 100 years after James united the monarchy, the Acts of Union were passed in both the Scottish and English parliaments which formalized their unification as the Kingdom of Great Britain. In the early 1800s, Ireland joined the Kingdom of Great Britain, and the country finally arrived at the modern title of the United Kingdom.

Next Steps

I am currently en route to London via train where I hope to visit debates in the House of Commons and House of Lords. If I get lucky, there will be some discussion around Brexit and the Tory leadership race, both of which are pertinent to politics in Scotland. With that being said, my train is currently stranded on the track on the coast of Scotland, with a loss of power in the overhead lines AND a person struck by a train further in the route. Needless to say, there is a good chance I will have to turn back, in which case I will scramble to assemble an itinerary for my last few days in Scotland. This weekend I meet my family in Amsterdam for a break from this intellectual journey, though I will continue to update the blog. There are a number of subjects, experiences, and conversations I still need to cover about Scotland and its independence movement before heading to Spain!

Trump’s Visit and the Birthplace of Golf

In this post, I will discuss Trump’s ongoing state visit to the United Kingdom, as well as my visit to St. Andrews, the birthplace of golf. This combination seems rather fitting to include in the same post, as Trump has become commonly associated with the sport, spending numerous days at his courses around the world.

St. Andrews

On Monday, I travelled to St. Andrews, a small coastal town about 30 miles from Edinburgh as the crow flies. St. Andrews was once the home of the nation’s largest church, St. Andrews Cathedral, a Catholic church built in the Middle Ages now in ruins as a result of the Scottish Reformation.

The East entrance of St. Andrews Cathedral, now in ruins.

St. Andrews is also the birthplace of golf, and is home to the Old Course, the oldest golf course in the world, and the Royal and Ancient Golf Club, the most important golf club in the world. Until recently, the club’s rules of play served as the basis for the rules of golf around the world. Across the street from the golf club and the 18th hole of the Old Course is the British Golf Museum. In the small museum rests the Claret Jug, the trophy of The Open Championship, the oldest major golf championship in the world. Even more impressive was the document with the original 13 rules of golf, including the commonly cited 10th rule still followed to this day, “If a Ball be stopp’d by any Person, Horse, Dog or anything else, The Ball so stop’d must be play’d where it lyes.” The day trip to St. Andrews was well worth the trek, and 7 hours was a perfect amount of time to visit the city. Below are a few photos from my visit.

Trump’s Visit to the United Kingdom

Donald Trump and the First Family of the United States arrived in London on Monday for his first state visit to the United Kingdom as President (he visited once before on a working visit). As I am sure you have seen, he is being met with a polarized reception, with protests in several major cities across the United Kingdom as well as supporters welcoming him at the gates of Buckingham Palace upon arrival.

In Scotland, Trump’s visit has been met with an overwhelmingly negative reception. Many here associate Trump with the Brexit movement, which, as I mentioned earlier, is largely unpopular in Scotland. Trump continues to be vocal in his support of the movement, meeting with Nigel Farage, the leader of the Brexit Party, yesterday. Trump sees this as an opportunity to renegotiate trade deals with the United Kingdom, tweeting that a trade deal can be reached once the country “get rid of the shackles” of the European Union.

Yesterday, I visited a protest of Trump’s visit in Edinburgh. Although Trump is not scheduled to visit Scotland on this trip, the people here are still making their voices heard. One speaker at the gathering said, “Trump is pouring petrol on our already divided country.” Another speaker remarked, “Trump is the worst president in America’s history, and our Prime Minister, similarly the worst ever, is rolling out the red carpet.” As mentioned previously, May is unpopular in Scotland for attempting to deliver Brexit. One comment, which I felt was rather telling, was one man saying, “The royals are fist bumping and enjoying a feast with Trump, all at the taxpayer’s, Scottish taxpayer’s, expense.” This signifies the feelings of some of the Scottish people towards the British crown and symbolize a sense of detachment from the Royal family in Britain which likely also plays into calls for independence. Many here do not feel a sense of ownership over the Crown, and view the royal family, in addition to the UK government, as leeches on Scotland’s purse. This visit seems to be exacerbating the issue and putting further strain on the relationship between the Scottish people and leaders, both royal and political, in London.

Protest of Trump’s visit in Edinburgh near St. Giles’ Cathedral.

Going Forward

Tomorrow morning, I fly back to the United States to speak at an event in Silicon Valley at Facebook’s headquarters. Over the past couple months, I have been working with America’s Promise Alliance and a group of several other young people to organize “The State of Young People” conference which is expecting about 400 attendees. I will be busy while I am there, but I will share my experience on the blog in several days upon return to the United Kingdom on June 9.