In the aftermath of the Catalan independence referendum, Spanish authorities are cracking down in Catalonia. Calling on a provision of Spain’s 1978 Constitution, Spanish Prime Minister Rajoy is moving to take control of government away from Catalan authorities. The move is throwing Spain into crisis, as Catalans plan to oppose Madrid’s move towards direct rule. The ultimate resolution of the crisis could have profound effects not just within Spain but also within the European Union.
Catalonia’s referendum on October 1st was hotly contested, with the Spanish government declaring it illegal and taking action to prevent people from voting, including sending police to polling stations to seize ballot boxes. Catalan officials pressed forward with the referendum anyway, declaring that 90% of voters had voted for independence.
Catalan President Carles Puigdemont delivered an address to Catalonia’s regional parliament several days later stating his intention to declare independence but first to enter into negotiations with the Spanish government before doing so. In response, Madrid began to arrest Catalan separatist leaders and has now declared that it will attempt to take control of Catalonia’s police forces and disband its parliament. Whether the central government will be able to do so without bloodshed remains to be seen.
The crisis brings back memories of Spain’s bloody civil war and of the failed 1981 coup attempt. Spain’s history of democratic government is not a long one, so the crisis over Catalonia risks upsetting a delicate balance. While Catalonia’s movement for independence has been building for decades, it isn’t the only independence movement within Europe. With UK voters voting for Brexit, and the Italian regions of Lombardy and Veneto recently voting to take more power back from Rome, separatist movements throughout Europe have become much more vocal in recent years.
What is perhaps most shocking about the situation in Spain is that EU authorities have not stepped in. They have had no qualms in the past about criticizing right-wing governments in Poland, Hungary, and Austria for alleged anti-democratic activities, and are moving towards full recognition of Serbia’s breakaway region of Kosovo as an independent state, but are suddenly silent when the Spanish government decides to repress a breakaway region. That can’t be good for the stability of the EU in the long term, as a hands-off approach will only fuel the anger of separatists in other regions who view European authorities as hypocrites who only tout democracy when it is in Brussels’ self-interest.