Curing the Catalonia Chaos: Support for Spanish Unity

As the crisis around possible Catalan independence intensifies, I explain why I’m with Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and his central government 100% of the way.

Date – 29/10/2017

As an autist (and, almost by extension, a non-conformist) I’m not usually one for jumping on the band wagon. Nor do I pretend to possess any real knowledge of Catalan history. Yet, since it seems the eyes of the world are currently fixated on the region, I feel I couldn’t call myself topical if I didn’t offer up at least a few thoughts.

My overwhelming impression of the situation is of insanity. From an illegal referendum at the beginning of the month, to a situation four weeks later in which hundreds of thousands of people now believe themselves to be living in an independent country that doesn’t technically exist, the circumstances have become so convoluted that, in terms of nonsensicality, even Brexit pales in comparison. That’s why I personally find it impossible to have any sympathy for those who started all this – Catalan President Carles Puigdemont and his government.

Calling an illegal referendum was, in short, an incredibly stupid thing to do.

We all know bureaucracy can be a real pain, but as this issue proves, it exists for a very good reason. I struggle to find words to express how ridiculously irresponsible it was for the Catalan government to call an illegal referendum. In doing so, they have disregarded proper democratic procedure, undermined the system of civil law and left 7.5 million people exposed to a situation of absolute chaos.

For many, the lasting image of the referendum will be of the appalling brutality of the Spanish police as they attempted to shut it down. I must clarify at this point that I completely agree that this excessive use of force was blatantly unacceptable and that those officers responsible for acts of violence must be held to account. However, this police brutality is a separate issue which does not detract from the referendum’s illegality or nonsensicality, or from the need to intervene to prevent it. Of course the Spanish police were wrong to use such horrific force. However, the Spanish government was absolutely right to have ballot boxes removed, organisers arrested, and the public instructed not to vote.

Appalling though the methods employed were, shutting down the referendum was in itself the right thing to do.

Under the circumstances, it strikes me that Rajoy had no choice but to fire Puigdemont, dissolve the anarchistic Catalan parliament and take direct control of the region – the so-called “nuclear option”. This perhaps inevitable outcome shows just how counter-productive the separatists’ extreme tactics have been; instead of gaining independence, they have now lost their autonomy and are being more directly governed by the Spanish parliament than at any time in the last 40 years.

Perhaps the most important issue of all is that, in calling an illegal vote, Puigdemont has not, as he would have us believe, championed democracy. He has, in fact, done the opposite. Logic would dictate that the “results” thus far are void – after all, it seems very unlikely that anyone would turn out at an illegal referendum to oppose the goal that said illegal referendum was trying to achieve. This explains the overwhelming result in favour of independence in a region where polls show that opinions over the issue are divided at best. The more recent vote in the Catalan parliament doesn’t hold much weight either, with the opposition refusing to take part not because they didn’t care about the issue at hand, but because they refused to legitimise the government’s illegal actions.

Events thus far also make it hard to see how the situation can be resolved democratically. It is now impossible for the Spanish government to permit an official referendum without being seen to give in to the Catalan parliament’s illegal actions. Even the ability of such a referendum to be considered fair is heavily compromised, since the separatists may well have gained public sympathy by being able to “play the victim”, when it was in fact their own actions that forced Rajoy’s government to take a hard line against them – in other words, the separatist leaders have broken the law and may well have gained support by doing so.

Recently, I have been writing at length about the grievous democratic shortfalls of the Brexit referendum. Yet the illegal vote on Catalan independence has taken the abuse of democracy to a whole new level.

The actions of the Catalan government have been hugely damaging to democracy.

For Catalonia, the future looks bleak. If the region’s breakaway is prevented, animosity towards the Spanish government will no doubt intensify, and Puigdemont’s recent call for “peaceful resistance” will likely not be enough to prevent the constitutional chaos he has already unleashed from leading to civil unrest and possibly even rioting. Yet if independence is formally ratified based on the events of 1st October, a grievous democratic injustice will have been done, anarchism will have been allowed to prevail, and huge resentment will fester between Spain and Catalonia as a result. Either way, irreparable damage has been done. This realisation is perhaps the greatest testament to how foolish Puigdemont and his government have been.

Turning to a Europe-wide context, I personally feel a little disappointed in the EU’s lack of condemnation of the brutality of Spain’s police. However, I can understand their predicament; populism often melds separate issues together, and such condemnation could have been seen as support for Catalan independence. This would be a very harmful impression for the EU to give; in addition to the problems outlined above, the EU, despite what many Brexiteers like to claim, certainly does not take lightly the decision to interfere in domestic matters of members states.

The situation seems unlikely to pose a huge threat to the EU. The Catalan separatists’ plight has so far not led to much anti-EU sentiment; what discussion there has been around an independent Catalonia’s possible future within Europe has focused on how, rather than if, Catalonia would seek to achieve EU membership in its own right. On a more aesthetic level, it is striking how the placement of an EU flag beside the podium is one of the very few things political arch-rivals Rajoy and Puigdemont appear to have in common.

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Hopefully, the Catalan separatists’ blend of fierce patriotism and respect for Europe will serve as a reassurance to those concerned for the individual “sovereignty” of EU member states.

This said, the potential ability of Brexiteers to use the Catalonia crisis to influence public opinion against Europe is a concern. Anecdotal evidence among Remain campaigners suggests that some hard Leavers are already criticising Europe’s lack of intervention in the crisis, oblivious to the irony of having themselves spent the last several years accusing the EU of “interfering” in members’ domestic affairs. On the plus side, the Brexiteers have in the Catalonia situation no legitimate factual case against the EU. On the downside, recent history has taught us that lack of facts and logic is not always enough to stop the populist, Eurosceptic right.

The Catalonia situation is largely not an EU issue. Although, that might not stop the Brexiteers from trying to hijack it to their advantage. Clearly, we will need to be on our guard.