As Catalonia is expected to declare independence any day now, Connor Hogan looks back at the period of violence that marked the referendum, as Spain’s Guardia Civil attacked voters in a referendum, and the EU’s silence in the wake of it.
It’s now been a week to the day since Catalonia went to the polls. As the situation continues to unfold, it feels more and more that what started as a simple (albeit contentious) regional plebiscite on independence is in fact a much, much more significant event – history is happening.
For those of us watching the vote, we anticipated some resistance from the Spanish state, especially given the increasingly bellicose rhetoric coming from Madrid since Catalonia’s parliament approved the referendum in September. But no-one, myself included, expected anything close to the scale of state violence that unfolded. Footage was beamed around the world of people being dragged out of polling stations by their hair, voters being thrown down flights of stairs, and crowds being shot with rubber bullets. In the space of a day, the referendum was everywhere: the world was watching horrified, and it hasn’t stopped watching since.
Part of the shock surrounding the events lies in the fact that Spain was what many commentators would have traditionally described as a mature, liberal democracy – somewhere you can go on holiday. We’re used to seeing images of brazen authoritarianism from Erdoğan’s Turkey, or Putin’s Russia – not Rajoy’s Spain, or more precisely: Juncker’s Union. The European Union, for many, represented something different. Since the Lisbon Treaty; the European Charter for Human Rights has formed an integral part of European law, and its Articles guarantee amongst many others the right to human dignity, to liberty, to freedom of expression, and to freedom of association. These aren’t to be found in some fine print on the back of an obscure EU directive: they are the basic principles of the Union itself, its alleged raison d’être. All Member States are bound by it, and theoretically must abide by it. But Spain, who joined the EEC in 1986, quite clearly shattered a whole series of these Articles on Sunday, when it knew the world was watching. Thus, one would assume that in light of such a flagrant disregard for its own founding principles, the EU as an institution would be compelled to respond.
So what did we get?
Now, as someone who campaigned to ‘leave from left-field’ during the Brexit referendum, it won’t surprise the reader that my expectations of the EU’s response were relatively low. But even I was astounded in the days following the referendum at the utter silence coming from Brussels. There was an official statement, but not only did it not condemn anyone, it offered a certain coded support for Rajoy’s government. Certain individual MEPs, such as Belgium’s Guy Verhofstadt condemned the violence, but even then their statements were couched in a bland, meaningless diplomatic register that falls far, far short of what the events warrant.
A full three days later, Frans Timmermans, the Commission’s First Vice-President (who is also in charge of the EU’s portfolio on Fundamental Rights), mustered all his courage, braved the Commission’s growing crowd of detractors and confirmed for us that Catalonia’s referendum was indeed illegal, and that the Guardia Civil’s use of force was entirely proportionate, in order to “uphold the law”.
This response is nothing short of an international outrage, and will undoubtedly serve as a black mark when the EU’s history books are written. The definition of ‘the law’ in this sense relates to the Spanish Constitution, which forbids secessionism of any form. Yet an amendment to that law would require the assent of the Spanish parliament and the King, which of course means that in practical terms, no matter how many people in Catalonia want a referendum, it will never be allowed to happen in Spain – not in one million years, not with seven and a half million votes. When Timmermans and others stand by ‘the law’ in this context, it’s simply a dismissal of any right to self-determination for the Catalans, and allows for a definition of violence and legality that is so malleable as to be meaningless: the Catalans ‘illegally’ voted, and the Guardia Civil ‘legally’ beat elderly people with truncheons. It is a disgrace (though not surprising) to see the Commission buy into this stupidity.
But it gets worse. To understand that outrage further, one need only imagine what the response would have been if similar events had occurred in a poorer EU member state, such as Poland and Hungary. In fact, one needn’t even imagine: earlier this year, both were threatened with sanctions as a result of their creeping authoritarianism (anti-democratic crackdowns on their judiciaries and media, and their xenophobic migrant policies). Egregious as their actions are, both countries are justifiably appalled at the EU’s blatant double standard when it comes to them, the periphery. The thought of hearing the word ‘sanctions’ in the same sentence as Spain is, to be frank, unthinkable; despite austerity, it remains a central member of the Union, with a rich colonial history and a very large and important economy. It would seem therefore, that in the eyes of the EU establishment, it has earned the right to beat its civilians indiscriminately, whereas Poland, Hungary and others are yet to catch up, yet to escape Brussel’s phony disapproval.
The hypocrisy strikes at something much deeper than a double standard, however. Often in times of serious crises, the façades of day-to-day politics momentarily evaporate, and one sees in the clear (or clearer) light of day the true, often simple motives and rationalities that animate big politics: British society with Tory Brexit, Wall Street in 2008 etc. The present crisis in Catalonia is now telling a generation something very interesting about the European Union.
One may argue that the EU is simply acting within its own competences – it would be an overstep to intervene in the internal matters of a Members State, even when nearly a thousand people are brutalised for simply trying to engage in a democratic vote.
The Commission’s support for Rajoy notwithstanding, this argument would make sense if it wasn’t for the blindingly obvious: the EU has always been happy, eager even, to intervene in the internal affairs of a member state when it comes to imposing austerity, when it comes to ensuring the cruel fiscal manacles of neoliberalism are good and tight, and when it comes to battling left-wing mandates against the broader economic program. This is where intervention is not only acceptable, but imperative. It will be several generations before the Greek people recover from the devastation wrought upon them by the Troika and maintained by the Brussels establishment, a devastation that required the wholesale dismissal of SYRIZA’s democratic mandate, a mandate the likes of which the unelected Commission, unelected European Central bankers and, for that matter, the unelected Spanish king can never hope to claim.
It has been an absolutely pathetic show of arrogance and cowardice, and should serve as the final, deafening rebuttal to any argument that the EU is a gatekeeper of peace on the continent (if you forget us in Northern Ireland of course, who joined a full 16 years before the Good Friday Agreement). The reality always was that the EU could not exist without peace in Europe, not the other way around. Yet from the confusion over the EU’s relationship to peace, the meek and arrogant defences of its inaction come through. Various apologists have this week taken the time to explain to us that the EU simply doesn’t want to give the Scots or the Flemish ideas, as if that resembles anything like a moral argument for their repugnant silence.
Significantly, this slipping of the mask, so to speak, has not been lost on some of the EU’s most dedicated supporters. In a very honest and heartfelt piece during the week, former British diplomat Craig Murray wrote that, despite being a dyed-in-the-wool Remainer; he has had to, with “a greater sadness than you can imagine”, withdraw his lifelong support for the EU, as a result of its response to Catalonia. In his words:
“The principles of the European Union and indeed the content of its treaties are something I continue strongly to support. But the institution has in fact been overrun by the right wing cronyism of the neo-liberal political class, and no longer serves the principles for which it ostensibly stands. It is become simply an instrument of elite power against the people.”
Whether that was your conviction before or after this week, the fact is that it is becoming increasingly hard to deny it. The EU is content to sit and watch people brutalised for voting in Catalonia, yet cannot rest until every member state is fully under the yoke of neoliberalism by any means.
The time to act was four days ago. The time to act was when the Generalitat approved the referendum a month ago, and requests were made for external invigilation. The time to act was in 2014 – the last time they attempted to hold a referendum, only to be whittled down by the Madrid establishment to make it non-binding. As Paul Mason noted yesterday, there is a very serious chance that, without mediation, we could be looking at a 21st century uprising in Catalonia. And although the revolutionary inside some of us loves that magic ‘u’ word, it would be foolhardy to fight for anything other than mediation at this stage – this is not Homage to Catalonia. Nevertheless, the stakes should not be underestimated: this is serious, and could become much more so. Two days after the vote, hundreds of thousands of protestors and workers engaged in a general strike, filling the broad avenues of Barcelona with defiant chants, banners and signs – a mass of people gathered and motivated in a way that is hard to compare to anything other than a revolution.
It’s too late for the EU’s reputation – but that does not mean it’s too late to prevent more violence in Catalonia. If there is anything the last number of years has taught Catalans, it is that Spain will hide behind the language of constitutionalism and legalism forever – they will never come to the table, and there will never be a legal referendum within Spain. But a referendum happened anyway, and it looks like Catalonia will declare independence in the coming weeks. Spain is already mobilising its military to bolster the Guardia Civil in what could become an even more brutal crackdown, and some Catalan leaders have already appeared in Madrid for charges of sedition. Humiliatingly for the EU, Switzerland hinted on Friday that it may be willing to provide a third party for mediation between Madrid and Barcelona, and not a minute too late. The future of the European project depends on that mediation’s success, much more so than it currently seems to think.