A meaningless referendum with a meaningful response
The scenes being broadcast from Catalonia on referendum day, are the sort of thing that wouldn’t seem out of place had they been sourced from Tunisia or Egypt circa 2011. But for what is supposedly a liberal, democratic member state of the EU, the behaviour being dislayed by Spanish authorities is deeply shocking.
The footage emerging of the Spanish paramilitary force, the Guardia civil, beating up old people, dragging women away from polling stations by their hair, firing rubber bullets into crowds of voters and stealing ballot boxes from schools are nothing short of horrifying. This violent oppression reeks of the old Franco regime, and frankly it is disgraceful that Spain has not faced greater international condemnation for these actions. Condemning violent oppression does not automatically mean supporting independence. In the words of the Belgian Prime Minister – one of few European leaders to speak out – it simply means that ‘violence can never be the answer’.
For some, a responsibility to speak out lies with the EU. Indeed, Article 7 of the EU treaty supposedly threatens any country that violates the fundamental values of the EU — defined as “liberty, democracy, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, and the rule of law ” — with sanctions, the greatest of these being suspension of voting rights in the EU institutions. For political reasons it has never been invoked, and it is seen by many as a ‘nuclear option’. However falling short of this kind of intervention, one would reasonably expect that paramilitary brutality against a State’s own citizens and violent disruption of a peaceful ballot, whether legal or not, would surely contravene the fundamental values of the EU and at the very least warrant a reaction. For all the criticism being directed at the Commission however, it is the Council, that group of heads of state like our very own Theresa May, who have the right and indeed the obligation to act. Law enforcement is a reserved power and rightly or wrongly, the Commission have no power to interfere here. There is some bitter irony in the fact that many who are criticising the Commission for its seeming paralysis, are the very same that complain that the EU should stop interfering in domestic affairs. Unfortunately, this is a matter of law for the Commission- which is very much stuck between a rock and a hard place.
For Spain, the irony is this. The Spanish government has repeatedly argued that its actions were justified to defend the Spanish constitution, however its actions may well be the nail in the constitutional coffin. The referendum was widely known to be illegal and this fact alone, especially in light of the low turnout of 42% which has since been recorded, would have served to undermine its legitimacy in the eyes of almost all international observers. In fact polls prior to polling day suggested that only 40% of Catalans were in favour of independence, and the remaining 60% were unlikely to vote. 90% of 42% is not even 38% of the overall electorate – hardly a robust democratic mandate for a constitutional decision. If only Spain had taken the high ground, and treated the referendum as the near irrelevance that it might have been, letting Catalonia play at statehood until it realised that recognition as an independent state requires certain procedures to be followed, things might have been able to go on largely as before.
However the actions of the Guardia Civil on behalf of Madrid have served only to create an even bigger rift between the Spanish government and Catalonia and will certainly have increased the Catalonian appetite for independence quite literally overnight. Spain has exposed itself as an oppressor. Gone is the face of the tolerant, liberal democracy it has been wearing convincingly for nearly 40 years. It has forced a situation in which the break-up of Spain, or a long term return to the oppressive tactics of the Franco regime, appear to be the only options without committed and concerted efforts by Madrid to return to dialogue. Even then, this may prove to have been one step too far for Catalonia. The referendum result was meaningless, but Spain’s response certainly wasn’t. The rubber bullets may have been aimed at Catalan voters, but Spain may just find that it has shot itself in the foot.
Feature photo credit: Sasha Popovic | Photography via VisualHunt / CC BY-NC-ND