In September 2014, Scotland sought via referendum a chance to be independent from the United Kingdom. The unionists won, maintaining the somewhat tempestuous relationship between Scotland and England. Regardless of the outcome, the vote remained peaceful, the results were honored, and the UK continued on.
The same cannot be said of Spain and Catalonia.
Around 750 people ended up in hospital after violent scenes perpetrated by Spanish police attempted to prevent the vote going ahead. Spanish courts had ruled the referendum illegal, as had Spain’s governing bodies. But Catalonia persisted. Despite the violence and antagonism, locals staging sit ins up to two days prior to the vote at polling stations kept the vote going.
The level of violence in a western democracy is disturbing. Foundations of government supposedly based on freedom to organize have been completely ignored. Spain has reacted in a way similar to dictatorships around the world, squashing revolution attempts it disagrees with.
“There was no referendum. What we have seen was a mere dramatization,” said the nation’s Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy. A dramatization? The firing of rubber bullets into crowds of protesters; police bludgeoning fireman who literally put themselves between Catalans attempting to vote and harms way; dragging women out of polling booths by their hair causing serious injuries. Most of this was caught on camera or video, yet in a fashion similar to Kremlin spokespeople or leaders from authoritarian regimes, it was flatly denied or looked over by legislators in Madrid.
Most disturbing is the sheer lack of outrage from the European Union member states. French President Emmanuel Macron said he respected a united Spain, while others said nothing. At a time when EU relations are becoming more complicated, the struggle between political rhetoric and human disgust has shown a questionable side of the EU.
Belgium’s current and former Prime Ministers – Charles Michel and Guy Verhofstadt – tweeted their disdain for Spain’s reaction while trying to remain neutral on the outcome of the referendum.
Other leaders were faced with calls to speak out, but none did. In Britain, Prime Minister Theresa May faced backlash from opposing parties, including the Scottish National Party, who all denounced Spain’s actions.
Calls for the EU to respect the safety and political wishes of Catalonia have been largely ignored, except for the repetition of the line: it is an internal issue for Spain alone to deal with. Despite this, Catalonia’s foreign minister, Raül Romeva, informed the EU of a “violation of fundamental rights”, a right the EU is supposed to uphold, whereas Barcelona’s mayor, who is opposed to independence but favors the right to vote, has demanded the EU to “defend the fundamental rights of Catalan citizens”:
Spain is now in crisis. The call for independence is now stronger than it was last week due to the vicious reaction by Spain; thousands had even taken to the streets in Madrid to stand in solidarity with Catalonia.
Rajoy’s defiance and dismissal is likely to draw reaction from those who had remained mostly agnostic to the result. Divisions between union and independence will intensify as those who stand with and against the government are influenced by the images seen on Sunday. Combine this with Rajoy’s iteration that the police acted with “firmness and serenity”, and putting all of the blame directly on the Catalan government will not encourage a peaceful resolution.
The coming weeks could see the outcome of a defiant, insurgent Catalan government declaring independence, and a resulting suspension of the autonomy which Catalonia has operated under by Rajoy’s government. Either way, there will be no outcome which pleases all sides.