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Between Europe's Borders

The Story of a Fake Country that Created a Real Political Movement

What had started out as an innocent meme mocking the 2017 struggle for independence in Catalonia ended up deeply dividing Spain.

by Juan Soto-Ivars
08 August 2019, 7:45am

All photos: Alícia Fàbregas

A solid joke can have a lasting impact on its audience, but rarely does it directly affect the political landscape. But in 2017, one spoof of the Catalan independence movement did just that.

In the autumn of 2017, the people of Catalonia took to the polls in a referendum on their independence from Spain. The Spanish government and a Spanish court had ruled the referendum unconstitutional, so in the days leading up to the vote, armed police raided locations all over Catalonia in an attempt to find and seize ballots to stop the vote from happening. Only the Catalan nationalist groups organising the referendum knew where they were located.

The ballot boxes suddenly appeared on election day, the 1st of October, when it turned out hundreds of Catalans had hidden them in their homes for months, and carried them to the polling stations the night before, while parents with children had slept over at the stations to prevent security forces from entering.

Still, national authorities sent thousands of riot police to prevent people from voting, using batons and rubber bullets – by the end of that particularly violent day, 844 people and 33 police had been treated for injuries.

The pro-independence movement claimed victory, announcing that 92 percent of voters supported independence. That might have been the case, but turnout was also low at 43 percent – more or less the same percentage of people who usually vote for the various pro-Catalonia parties at major elections. Meanwhile, pro-Spanish groups claimed supporters of Catalan independence had voted multiple times in the referendum.

The conflict between pro-independence and pro-union groups in the region had been brought to a boiling point. Some days later, the President of Catalonia, Carles Puigdemont, officially proclaimed the Catalan Republic, but immediately suspended independence proceedings until further dialogue with the Spanish government and the international community. No such dialogue happened – the Spanish government started arresting Catalan politicians and activists. Amid continuous demonstrations, Puigdemont fled to Belgium.

In the end, Catalans' fight for independence did sort of put a new country on the map, but not the one they were hoping for. The new country was called Tabarnia, and had started out as a fairly innocent joke.

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Tabarnia supporters at a rally in Barcelona. March, 2018.

Independence from independence

According to its supporters, Tabarnia is a fictional region within Catalonia, made up of a strip of land between Barcelona and Tarragona, where, historically, Catalonian pro-independence parties have struggled to pick up votes. Born as a parody of the Catalan independence movement, the idea really took off a few years before the referendum, in 2013, when posts began appearing on Forocoches – a Spanish online forum where memes, trolling and politics intersect in a way similar to Reddit or 4chan.

Tabarnia was written and memed about as Catalonia’s more cosmopolitan, open-minded half – full of people who had come to the region from other parts of Spain. If Catalonia sought independence from Spain, Tabarnia in turn would seek independence from Catalonia.

As the Catalan government seriously started pushing for a referendum on independence, pro-Spanish groups played up the concept of Tabarnia. The tactic was simple at first – they countered every slogan from Catalan separatists with their own slogan. If Catalan separatists chanted that Spain was stealing resources from Catalonia, Tabarnia supporters would reply that the rest of Catalonia was stealing from them.

“The most beautiful thing about Tabarnia is that it pisses Catalans off so much,” says Mikel, an IT engineer who prefers to remain anonymous because of his active role in the Tabarnia Twitter community. “Show them the Spanish flag, and they’ll call you a fascist, but if you take out the Tabarnia flag, you’re basically calling them fascists”.

Of course separatist Catalans don’t see it that way: Pro-independence groups say they are promoting a nationalist movement that is open, diverse and progressive – in contrast to what they see as the hyper-nationalist expression of Spanish identity on the pro-union side.

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Following the Catalan regional elections in December of 2017, Tabarnia ceased to be just a social media meme and started to gather more attention. The group behind the site Barcelona is not Catalonia launched the Tabarnia movement, which meant the unionist counter-offensive was now officially battling pro-independence groups for media attention. As dialogue between the government and Catalan leaders completely broke down, all sorts of wild stories started appearing in Spanish media, including proposals about a “two-state” solution between Catalonia and Tabarnia.

And then there was the time Jaume Vives, a 24-year-old journalist stood on the balcony of his house and started yelling that he was fed up with this shit. A video of the incident went so viral Vives was offered the role of being the official spokesperson for Tabarnia.

By the time Vives joined the movement, Tabarnia wasn’t just a viral joke anymore. Albert Boadella, a famous actor and pro-unionist who claims he had to flee Catalonia due to his beliefs, was considered Tabarnia’s president in exile. On the 16th of January, 2018, the representatives of Tabarnia gave their first press conference, broadcasting a pre-recorded speech by Boadella in which he proclaimed that saying "Long live Tabarnia!" was as patriotic as saying "Long live Spain!” The parody of the independence movement was growing into a form of Spanish nationalism in its own right.

Vives, in his new role as spokesperson, also gave a press conference on that day, which was followed by mainstream TV channels and newspapers. In it, Vives announced that if Catalonia became independent, Tabarnia would immediately break off from Catalonia and go back to being part of Spain. None of the secessionist leaders reacted, but unionist politicians cheered on.

Andrea Levy, a former member of the Catalan Parliament with the unionist Partido Popular, was one of those politicians fully in support of the cause. “It was an ironic response to years of [Catalan] nationalism,” Levy tells me, “against the prevailing idea that there was only one Catalonia acting in unison.”

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Tabarnia supporters selling pro-union merchandise.

Levy thinks that the success of the phenomenon “proved there was a part of the Catalan people that hadn’t channelled their opposition to independence in an organised way, but now had the right mechanisms to do so.”

And so the first Tabarnia flags began to appear in the streets of Barcelona: hanging from balconies and waved at pro-Spain demonstrations.

Eventually, a number of Catalan independistas were brought before the courts, and Tabarnia started having to compete for airtime again. Antonio Baños, former representative in the Catalan parliament of the secessionist left-wing party CUP, believes that the disproportionate media interest in Tabarnia in the final days of 2017 proves that “behind this supposed mockery [of Catalan independence] there was a lot of money, and a real interest in discrediting the pro-independence movement – a movement with 2 million people involved, who suffered police brutality and political persecution.” In other words: the whole Tabarnia thing could have been choreographed by the Spanish forces in power.

Supporters of Tabarnia deny any kind of funding. Vives tells me that, at its core, Tabarnia never stopped being a small group of people taking the piss out of secessionists, with no real structure and certainly no funding. Vives believes the success of the joke was due to people’s weariness with the rhetoric of the Catalan nationalist politicians who had ruled Catalonia for almost 30 years. “We used the same words as them to defend a meaningless project. Just like them.”

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The official Tabarnia online merchandise store.

Baños, however, doesn’t believe they were just a bunch of well-meaning pranksters. “You just need to look at the profiles of its members to see they’re the elite, and that there are many right-wing extremists among them.” Vives has denied this, and insists that the Tabarnia movement is comprised of people from all ideologies, “from conservatives to liberals. What [the Catalan nationalists] can’t stand is that they’ve been exposed.”

The disagreement between Baños and Vives shows how Tabarnia became another way of dividing Catalan society. Half of the population in Catalonia want a new border, while the other half created an imaginary one to make fun of them.

The push for independence slowed down with the imprisonment of Catalonia’s political leaders, which meant the Tabarnia movement also lost momentum. There's still a website up selling merchandise, and there are a few Twitter accounts actively supporting the idea. But overall, it seems Tabarnia is back to being a meme – albeit one that got slightly out of hand.

Read more stories fromVICE.com's series about how the national borders dividing and surrounding Europe affect the lives of the people living near them.

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