This weekend did not do any good to the image of Spain and of the EU in the world. The pictures of the elderly and other peaceful citizens hurt in Catalonia by the charges of Spanish anti-riot police during the celebration of a so-called referendum were heartbreaking. The fact that the people suffered injuries for trying to exercise their right to vote makes things even worse. The narrative is now on the side of the victims, not of the Spanish State.
I am Spanish and I believe that it was wrong to send in anti-riot police to stop an illegal referendum of independence in Catalonia. It was a mistake, a tactical mistake, that Mariano Rajoy will have to live with in the following months and years. Maybe for the rest of his life if this is the beginning of the end of Catalonia’s relation with Spain.
However, despite the dramatic impact of the pictures and the vociferous claims from part of the media, things should be put into perspective and we should not get too carried away.
First, the intervention of the Spanish police was not the result of a premeditated plan of aggression against peaceful citizens. The Catalan police boycotted the judicial decision issued by a Barcelona judge ordering to stop the referendum. The Catalan police didn’t warn their colleagues from the Guardia Civil and the Policía Nacional, they simply went to the voting booths on the day of the referendum and told people to go home. When people replied and said that they would not move, the Catalan police simply walked away. When the Guardia Civil and the Policía Nacional realized that they were all alone to stop a referendum that was taking place in 2000 different polling stations, it was obvious that the Spanish government was unable to stop it from happening. It was thus a mistake to send the Guardia Civil and the Policía Nacional to stop the referendum only in a few locations. By the time they got there, hundreds of citizens awaited, using children and the elderly to build a human wall around the voting booths. When the officers tried to get through, people blocked their path and eventually all hell broke loose. Thus the pictures we saw on Sunday. If it was obvious that the referendum could not be stopped at that point, why send in the police?
Second, Catalans finally voted, but they did it in a referendum that was so grotesquely irregular and improvised that it can hardly be called a referendum at all. The courts ordered the disconnection of the computer systems that fed the referendum’s data base, and the closing of a few booths (the few that the Spanish police managed to close) led the organizers to impose a universal circumscription for the entirety of the territory of Catalonia, so that anybody could vote anywhere. People voted four or five times, people from Madrid managed to vote, people with no ID managed to put their vote in the ballot box, as well as many other stories that undermine completely the quality and rigor of the results.
Third, the outcome of this so-called referendum was not very good for its promoters. Approximately 42% of Catalans with the right to vote went to the polls. Almost 60% of the voters stayed home. The “yes” vote succeeded with 90% of support, a result that would embarrass any dignified politician for its resemblance to Cuban or Venezuelan one-party election results. Catalonia is deeply divided by the issue of independence, and on October the 1st, the great day of the independence movement, after seeing the pictures of police violence on TV (which brought even more people to the polls, not the contrary), 42% of the voters showed up. It is a very significant part of the Catalan population, but definitely not enough to declare the independence of the country from Spain. The numbers clearly show that there is no appetite for independence among the majority of Catalan society.
Nevertheless, the Catalan Government announced, shortly after the results were made public, that in the following days the Catalan Parliament, in accordance with the Transition Act, will be informed of the official results and it will immediately declare the independence of Catalonia. From that moment on, all the powers of the Spanish State will be transferred by the Catalan authorities, including the judiciary, and Catalonia will start a new future as a new Member State of the European Union and of the international community.
In the meantime, the Catalan Government, with the support of the organizations that support independence, have launched a complaint before the European Commission, accusing the Spanish government of brutal violence and severe attacks against the civil and political rights of Catalans who peacefully wanted to vote on Sunday. The complaint requests the European Commission to start proceedings under Article 7 TEU against the Kingdom of Spain. These proceedings would entail the loss of voting rights of Spain in the Council and, eventually, its invitation to abandon the European Union. Undemocratic States should not be part of the European club and Spain, in its ruthless attack against democracy in Catalonia, would be a good candidate for expulsion.
It is sad to see how such relevant tools of democratic scrutiny, as is the case of Article 7 TEU, can be so blatantly manipulated on the basis of such arguments. Just as a quick reminder, Sunday’s so-called referendum had its legal basis on a Parliamentary Act that was declared unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court. A judge in Barcelona ordered the Catalan Government and all public authorities from enacting the necessary measures to stop the referendum from taking place. These court orders were ignored by the Catalan Government and the Catalan police forces. The Guardia Civil and Policía Nacional were left all alone before two million citizens, and violence erupted when some of those citizens stopped the authorities from entering the voting stations. Police action against those citizens was a tactical mistake, but it was not much different to the type of anti-riot charges launched by the Catalan police forces during the revolts of 2011, when the Catalan Parliament was surrounded by Indignados and Catalan ministers and MPs were brutally attacked when trying to enter the premises. The Catalan police was unmerciful then, to the point that it was banned ever since from using flash-balls after a protester lost an eye.
In the meantime, there is a regional government, the Catalan Government, ignoring the decisions of the courts (but following them depending on how convenient to its interests they may be), financing with public funds a process towards independence with no social support in Catalonia, and preparing a declaration of independence on the grounds of a referendum in which 60% of the population decided not to vote. To request the European Commission to apply Article 7 TEU on Spain would sound like a bad joke, but the extraordinary is the ordinary now in Catalonia, and nothing has stopped its Government from formally complaining about the systemic and severe breaches of human rights in Catalonia.
Unfortunately the Catalan Government is not very interested in the human rights of the 60% of citizens that refused to participate in Sunday’s extravaganza. Those citizens have been left all on their own. It is true that they have the Spanish Government on their side, but after the many tactical mistakes of Rajoy’s Government in the past days, who wants to be protected by him and his Ministers in Catalonia? At this stage, maybe it’s time for the Commission to take a stand and to remind the authorities in Spain (all the authorities) that there are almost five million citizens in Catalonia (of a total population of seven and a half million) left stranded between the illiberal demagoguery of a Catalan Government only loyal to those who embrace the new religion, and the legalistic and cold regard of Madrid.
Thus, the values of the EU are indeed at stake in Catalonia, but not because of the split between Catalonia and the rest of Spain, and not because Spain sent anti-riot police to stop an illegal referendum. Despite the first impressions, the real bond that is now being shattered is the one that holds Catalan society together, a rich and plural society that is now being led by a minority on the road to where the majority does not want to be. And when a region of a Member State breaks into two as a result of the illiberal policies of an invigorated minority, what does that say about the rule of law in Europe?