Recent years have seen Barcelona gain growing international exposure, while gradually leaving behind any temptation to try to be Spain's second city, acting instead as the capital of a nation working to recover her sovereignty. Under a new administration, small yet significant steps have taken place. They include frequent trips to the United States by Mayor Trias and a renewed drive, working in tandem with the Catalan Government, to secure intercontinental flights and break the Spanish blockade on rail connections between the city's harbour and the European railway network. Following his trip to Ireland and Portugal, Help Catalonia talked with Carles Agustí, commissioner for citizens participation and associations at Barcelona City Council.
1.- Help Catalonia: Big cities can be anonymous and distant from citizens. What is Barcelona doing in order to avoid this?
Thinking of persons. Our project is “the city of persons” and everything revolves around this concept. For example, since we are the world mobile phone capital, and we top the rank of the Smart Cities, our goal is to secure services aimed at improving quality of life for citizens.
2.- Help Catalonia: What are the main concerns that Barcelona Local Council hears from people and associations?
The different, overlapping, crisis that we are suffering. The economic crisis, of course, which is giving a lot of people a hard time. Also the political crisis, though, with a great mistrust by citizens toward the ruling institutions. The national crisis too, with exhaustion concerning coexistance with Spain, and mutual fatigue in relations between Catalonia and Spain.
3.- Help Catalonia: Concerning this effort to get closer to citizens, to grant them a role in the city's governance, is it related to the gradual taking root of the democracy – right to self-determination duet?
It is all democracy. Involving citizens in the city's governance, what we call “ruling with the people,” is democracy. So is, obviously, the right to decide, the right to self-determination. In other words the right to vote, which is democracy's core.
4.- Help Catalonia: You have recently travelled to Ireland and Portugal. Is Barcelona's experience in the field of citizens participation prompting any interest?
It is. However, Barcelona is such an international brand that our model prompts interest in whatever field. Also, of course, when it comes to citizens participation. This is an area where we have a concrete model, which we want to export to the world while enriching it with experiences from abroad. All of this is easier thanks to the fact that Barcelona hosts the international headquarters of the main network of cities in the field of citizens participation, the IOPD (International Observatory on Participatory Democracy). Actually, the IOPD acts as the international organization in this field.
5.- Help Catalonia: On the other hand, which experiences from other cities would you stress? Have you observed any that Barcelona may be pondering to adopt?
Porto Alegre, the capital per excellence of participatory democracy since it set up participatory budgets. Also different open government experiences such as those from some US and Basque cities, in addition to London.
6.- Help Catalonia: Spain is considered to be a backward, little competitive, corrupt country, with a weak work ethic, obsessed with getting subsidies, unconcerned about international security, freedom of navigation, and the rule of law at sea, and a not very trustworthy ally. In international meetings such as those you have recently attended, how does Barcelona Local Council manage to avoid being tainted by that image?
We travel representing Barcelona, which sports its own brand, and a very powerful one. We try to associate Brand Catalonia to it, in order to promote it. Brand Catalonia remains unknown in a great deal of the world. We do not need any other brand.
7.- Help Catalonia: More generally, despite the impact of the 9/11 Catalan National Day demonstration in 2012, and the 2013 Catalan Way (mass human chain), many tourists and business visitors still associate the Catalan capital with Spain. How can the local council help promote an alternative image, based on modernity and Catalan identity?
I would answer with the same arguments explained in the reply to the previous question. That is, betting on brand Barcelona itself and linking it to Catalonia, the latter standing behind brand Barcelona. Catalonia must gradually get to be known internationally. Plus, actually stressing the distinctive values making up both brands, such as their Mediterranean, European, entrepreneurial nature and the presence of a strong civil society and popular culture, among others.
8.- Help Catalonia: In the case of tourism, Madrid's anti-Gibraltar campaign is prompting a growing number of calls for a tourist boycott against Spain. Julie Girding, a member of the European Parliament, has issued one such call, while making it clear that she recommended travelling to Catalonia. What can Barcelona Local Council do to ensure that British tourists are not confused and stop visiting Catalonia's capital?
I believe that precisely concerning this issue, Catalonia's and Barcelona's own position has been made clear, different from that of Spain proper. Our position is far from the ancient claims by others. On the contrary, it is based on respect and solidarity toward the people of Gibraltar's right to self-determination. They also have that right.
9.- Help Catalonia: In your recent trip to Ireland you had a meeting with Taoiseach Enda Kenny. What were the main issued discussed?
First of all, Barça. He is a football fan and appeared most happy with FC Barcelona. It was a trip with the Leading Cities network of municipalities, led by Boston and where Barcelona plays a significant role. As a result, the rest of the exchange dealt with Ireland's economic recovery model, based on betting on new technologies. This has born fruit, since a large portion of the world's main enterprises in the technology industry have their European or global headquarters in Dublin. Google and Linkedin among them.
10.- Help Catalonia: Is there any interest in Ireland in Barcelona City Council's citizens participation policies?
Yes, above all those concerning co-innovation and co-creation. We have a number of precedents under our belt, and a certain experience in this field. This was of interest to the Irish, and to other members of the Leading Cities network.
11.- Help Catalonia: At the Portuguese city of Cascais you co-chaired the 13th IOPD Conference on “Citizenship for Sustainability”. Could you tell us a bit about the issues discussed and the participants' conclusions?
This was the IOPD World Congress, which I referred to earlier. Thus, participants discussed all sort of issues connected to citizens participation. Above all participatory budgets, this is the most widespread experience at the world level, but also open government case studies. One of the conclusions was the need to coordinate among ourselves in making known this sort of experiences. Also a warning on the risk of supranational institutions having excessive power to impose their thesis, something that was considered to be able to weaken the democratic mechanisms whereby citizens may express themselves.
12.- Help Catalonia: The suggested theme for the 14th IOPD Conference is “A radicalization of democracy and citizen participation”. Can we say that it is further evidence that democracy, and associated concepts such as participation and self-determination, are gradually moving forward in the world agenda? What contributions can Barcelona make in this coming conference?
We are contributing our model of citizens participation, called “Ruling with the people”, which is Barcelona's answer to the crisis in citizens' trust in politics, and which is based on involving them in the tasks of government. The neighbourhood councils, the management of local council facilities by popular entities, the strength of civil society, and electronic participation, are part of the model which Barcelona is exporting, which also includes Catalonia's right to self-determination.