Catalonia is making Europe uneasy

Vidya Ram | Updated on January 08, 2018

Democracy deficit Spain comes down hard on the movement

The secessionist movement comes amidst similar upsurges elsewhere in the continent and the rise of extreme tendencies

The silence from political leaders globally — with a few notable exceptions — in the wake of the violent scenes that gripped Barcelona and other parts of Catalonia during the October 1 referendum on independence, highlighted the degree to which the situation made uncomfortable viewing for governments across the world.

Many have long been dealing with secessionist movements in various forms with different degrees of firmness, accommodation and success. Still, there can be few doubts that the situation that has unfolded in Spain over the past two weeks — which included the use of force that resulted in hundreds of injuries, strikes, and warnings from businesses that they would move out of Catalonia’s thriving heart, Barcelona — is among the most dramatic.

While unofficial referendums on independence have been held in Catalonia in the recent past — including in 2011 and 2014 — feeding on rising support for independence in the wake of the Euro Zone crisis and consequent austerity regimes, the Catalan parliament approved legislation to enable another independence referendum in early September. The administration of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy acted quickly, getting the referendum declared illegal by the nation’s constitutional court, and confiscating material and shutting down websites. Around 10,000 police were deployed across the region for the referendum, which resulted in a 90 per cent vote for yes, though on a low turnout of 43 per cent, with many against independence thought to have refrained from participating.

No backing down

While scenes of people being dragged out of buildings by police on the day of the referendum flashed across media outlets globally, Human Rights Watch said its detailed investigation had pointed to the “excessive use of force” across the region, pointing to incidents such as the treatment of a 70-year-old grandmother in the village of Fonollosa, who was thrown to the ground by two Civil Guards, and had her wrist broken. Nevertheless, in the aftermath many governments were cautious in offering judgment. The European Commission said that while violence couldn’t be used as an instrument of politics, it was “an internal matter for Spain that has to be dealt with in line with the constitutional order of Spain”. Governments including Germany and Britain have expressed their support for Spanish unity.

This and considerable support domestically (and within the Spanish mainstream media, as well as from King Felipe) for his “ mano dura” (firm hand) has meant that Rajoy has had little incentive to back down from his tough positioning, warning earlier this week that should a declaration of independence be made, Catalonia’s autonomy could be suspended, while Catalan president, Carles Puigdemont, faced the prospect of jail.

For now, the situation has been halted at the precipice as Puigdemont held off a full independence declaration on Tuesday, telling the regional parliament that the declaration would be suspended to allow for talks with the central government. Rajoy, unrelenting, has demanded clarification on whether independence had been declared, with a deadline of Monday, and threat of potential action later in the week if things aren’t rectified. He’s received support in this stance from the leader of the Socialist party, Pedro Sanchez, who has also backed his stance against international mediation.

Fanning the fire

What happens next remains to be seen, but the situation is a powerful reminder of the limited benefits of heavy-handed tactics, and its tendency to exacerbate rather than overcome situations.

The 2014 Scottish referendum, to some degree, highlighted the benefits of a non-confrontational approach. While the vote went against independence and involved the use of scare tactics rather than the building a positive case by those pushing for unity, it led to pledges from the British government for further devolved powers.

While these are yet to fully emerge, the backing for the call for a second independence referendum in the wake of Brexit would likely have been far higher without it.

The Catalan issue has long dogged Spanish politics — from the granting of autonomy in 1931, to its reversal during the civil war and the regime of dictator General Franco.

The 2006 statute of autonomy was reversed by the constitutional court in 2010 in a move now widely seen as triggering the current crisis, propelling Catalonia to the forefront of Spain’s secessionist movements that had once been overshadowed by Basque separatism. Since 2012, Catalonia’s national day, the Diada, has been celebrated with gusto, highlighting the broad-based growing support for Catalan independence.

The road forward remains unclear: The Socialist Party’s Sanchez this week highlighted a joint initiative between his party and that of the ruling People’s Party to launch a commission that would work on changes to the constitution, though this is set to report only in the next six months.

Towards a compromise

Still, it is in the interests of all to come to a compromise. Demonstrations have in recent days paralysed parts of Catalonia, an area crucial to the wider Spanish economy, with fears that the unrest could hurt investment into Spain at a time that other European nations were seeking opportunities thrown up by the uncertainty around Brexit.

While Catalan secessionists have touted EU membership as their route forward, the European Commission has by and large quashed its hopes, not least for fear of a secessionist movements across the union, which have gathered pace in recent years.

The Catalonian movement, made up of a cross-spectrum collective of parties, has struggled to agree on a positive economic future on which the independent nation could be based.

But the fact that these movements have coincided with Brexit and the rise of the far left, and right across Europe and beyond suggests that there is a wider sense of dissatisfaction.

Published on October 13, 2017

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