The regional government of Catalonia has held a referendum on independence from Spain – and it’s causing quite an uproar. The central government has deemed the referendum illegal, and violence and protests have broken out as a result.
In an official statement, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said:
“Today there has not been a self-determination referendum in Catalonia. The rule of law remains in force with all its strength. We are the government of Spain, and I am the head of the government of Spain, and I accepted my responsibility.”
To prevent the referendum from being carried out, the Spanish government ordered the federal police Guardia Civil to intervene, which resulted in violence and over 800 civilians wounded, in what can only be described as civil war-like conditions. The police brutality has garnered concerned reactions all over the West. Rajoy, who is also the leader of the ruling conservative party, justified his actions:
“We have done what was required of us. We have acted, as I have said from the beginning, according to the law and only according to the law. And we have shown that our democratic state has the resources to defend itself from an attack as serious as the one that was perpetrated with this illegal referendum. Today, democracy has prevailed because we have obeyed the constitution.”
Possibly in response to the violent actions, as much as 92% of the votes were in favor of self-determination. However, the voter turnout was merely 43%, which indicates that those who were against it likely stayed at home. Regardless of the legality of the referendum, the low turnout undermines its democratic legitimacy.
Many have decried the actions of the Spanish government as an echo from the dictatorship of the nationalist General Francisco Franco, who consolidated the power after the civil war, which ended in 1939. Franco remained in power as an autocrat until his death in 1975, when Spain carefully transitioned into a democracy. Franco established Guardia Civil under his reign precisely for such situations as they encountered in Catalonia recently, to maintain law and order.
It is tempting to conclude that the fascist legacy of Franco gave a blow to the will of the Catalonian people. However, the situation is far more complex and subtle than such a simple analysis.
First, the Spanish civil war was not about fascism versus democracy. It was rather nationalism versus communism. As such, the civil war was more analogous to what happened in Russia in 1917 or Cuba in 1959, except that in Spain the communists lost. The alternative to Franco’s autocracy was never a democracy, but communist totalitarianism.
This time around, the nationalists in Catalonia want independence from the nationalists in Spain. It could be argued that Catalonia wants to secede from the Spanish Federation and that the actions of Rajoy parallel those of President Abraham Lincoln in 1861, and uphold the constitution.
At the same time, it could be argued that Catalonia has legitimate grievances and that they were brought into modern Spain against their will in the aftermath of the civil war. Catalonia is the richest and most developed part of Spain, and they pay an inordinate amount of taxes to the rest of Spain.
They are also worried about the status of their Catalan language, which faces erosion due to open borders and worker migration to the rich capital of Barcelona. A growing number of people in the region speak Spanish rather than Catalonian. Hence, the conflict also echoes some of the worries seen in Brexit and the election of President Donald Trump in America.
However, one thing is beyond question: the EU elite sides unilaterally with the Spanish government as they see the potential breakup of Spain as a prelude to a similar fate to the EU. What happens in Spain will thus have ramifications all across Europe.