“Riot police have clashed with voters and smashed their way into a polling station as an illegal independence referendum begins in Catalonia,” reported Marc Stone from Sky News. Last week’s excessive brutality and heavy-handed approach to crack down on participants in the referendum was an outrage for Spanish parliamentary democracy. The violation of the rule of law, as well as the alienation of people’s freedom of expression and vote stomps out democracy, thus uncovering a hidden, self-interested, and abusive regime.
Riot Police in stand-off as illegal Catalonia independence vote begins. Source: Sky News
Catalonia has been incessant in her demands for independence since 1931, but Catalan determination and self-identity were particularly the driving forces for secession from 2014, when the government announced a referendum to be held in the November of that year. However, the referendum failed to pass, with a turnout of only 35%. The consecutive year, another referendum was called, which fell just short of winning a majority. A third attempt at an independence referendum was made on 1 October 2017 by Catalan President Puigdemont, causing 893 civilians and 431 police officers injuries.
This populist wave, which Catalan hopes for independence may be viewed as part of, has been felt across the world. Yet, governments have reacted differently to this wave of populism. For instance, when the Brexit cause became prominent in the British Conservative Party, former PM David Cameron, a fervent defender of the EU partnership, allowed the Brexit referendum to take place. Similarly, the result of the US elections in November 2017 shook the world; Donald Trump, a millionaire businessman with no former experience in policy-making was chosen to be the next Western world’s leader. Nevertheless, neither the British nor American establishment have ever condemned or forced to change the decisions of their people. These choices are certainly criticised, but as democratic Western countries, ethics, human rights, and freedom of expression are the raison d’être. They should be countries that, by essence, are constituted and ruled by the will of their citizens.
Old lady injured when police prevents her to vote in the Catalan referendum. Source: Metro
Yet, Spain’s actions have considerably delegitimised its claims of a rightful use of force to manage an “illegal” referendum, and it is now at a critical moment regarding its democracy. People are stiffly debating about the degree of democratic liberties that the Spanish government allows, and the measures taken to enforce the law.
Indeed, UN human rights experts have expressed their worries at the Spanish government’s violations of fundamental individual rights, such as the rights to freedom of opinion and expression. These experts are urging the Spanish government to use force proportionately and only when it is necessary. Moreover, the EU Commission has condemned the violence, reiterating that it “should never be an instrument in politics”, especially against a country’s own civilians, and that Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy should manage this crisis “in full respect of the Spanish Constitution and of fundamental rights of citizens enshrined therein”. Spanish leading newspapers and major politicians, including Ada Calau (the leftist mayor of Barcelona who is ambivalent about Catalan independence) have even called for Rajoy’s resignation. Indeed, shocking images emerged of gravely injured Catalan voters, dragged out of polling booths by police – a man with blood running down his face, a woman claiming police broke her fingers one by one. Teenagers, women, elderly people were injured all the same.
Catalans, as well as Spaniards, and the rest of the world, were shocked by the violent escalation of events, and tried to make sense of it in two basic questions: why were the police so determined and violent in preventing the referendum, and how will Spain move forward from here? Catalonia’s history and its relentless quest for autonomy is at the heart of the current political crisis. Catalans have repeatedly been subjected to a conservatist Spanish government, who prohibited Catalonia from gaining too much political power and autonomy, causing increased and obstinate demands for secession.
Certainly, Catalonia has a long–standing tradition of nationalism and suppression. With a distinctive language, culture, and history stretching back to the early Middle Ages, many Catalans think of themselves as a separate nation from the rest of Spain. During the eleventh century, the County of Barcelona (Catalonia) was a distinct entity, having its own laws and customs. After unifying with the Kingdom of Aragon, a confederation englobing the North-Eastern area, the domain united with Spain when King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile married in the fifteenth century. The early twentieth century was a pivotal period for Catalan nationalism. Leading Spain’s industrialisation, Catalans were able to revive their culture and language. However, Franco’s dictatorship dismantled all progress made on Catalan recognition by considerably repressing Catalan nationalism, restricting the Catalan language and culture, as well as revoking Catalan autonomy. An independence movement re-emerged after Franco’s death in 1971, restoring the Catalan parliament and the executive, the “Generalitat” (Government).
Officers were seen stamping and kicking protesters as they stormed buildings and seized ballot boxes in Barcelona. Source: BBC
Nevertheless, the root of the current conflict lies in 2010, when a ruling of Spain’s constitutional court limited Catalan claims to nationhood and autonomy. Spain declares that the referendum contradicts the constitutional status quo, but Catalans insist that this agreement was imposed on them and thus violates their dignity and rights. Indeed, it should be fair for Catalonia to retain some privileges, as the region is a critical contributor to Spain’s economy, concentrating about 20% of Spain’s 2013 GDP (€203.62 billion for €1.17 trillion), and actually giving more money to Spain than it receives by way of investments. Since the ruling of the 2010 agreement, Catalonia has attempted to upgrade its situation, but these efforts were unsuccessful, and Catalans claim that they “were left no option but to organise a referendum”. Separatist movements were further amplified after the economic crisis, when the Spanish government imposed austerity measures on the region. This harboured Catalan discontent, anger, and overall dissatisfaction with the regime, as the Spanish government was using Catalan wealth and its diversified economy to hold the rest of Spain together.
Hence, an independent Catalonia would have devastating consequences for Spain’s economy. If Catalonia, the industrial heart of Spain, were to leave, Spanish debt would be unsustainable. It is estimated to reach 125% debt-to-GDP ratio if Catalonia leaves and refuses to share the debt, which it might, considering the escalation of events and Spanish intransigence towards the Catalan cause. This abusive use of violence paralleled Franco’s oppression of Catalan separatists, and was an authentic expression of Spanish conservatism. Spain has no interest in giving in to these nationalist movements. The centralised state thought it could address Catalan demands for secession the same way it previously did during Franco’s dictatorship, but this tactic played against the regime. Spain is now facing a critical political crisis regarding its democracy, and therefore must confront the call for Catalan independence. To resolve this situation peacefully, Mariano Rajoy could agree to change the Constitution, granting the Catalans their lost privileges of culture and language, and to re-establish some sort of autonomous region, which would still be closely tied to Madrid. By doing this, they would change the status quo in favour of Catalan interests, thus satisfying their demands for recognition and rights. Furthermore, they would effectively prevent a worst scenario, where secession would cost 20% of Spain’s economic output and an explosive, unsustainable debt, which could plunge the country into a long economic recession.
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