I have been following events in Catalonia from afar since I last wrote about the violent reaction of the government after the independence referendum. Since then, my attention and focus has been a little closer to home with a relatively dramatic period of events and negotiations concerning Brexit and a scandal in the Irish government. On the international front, the decision of Donald Trump to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel was a major talking point among the liberal, chattering classes.
In this age of constant news, viewed and accessed through many devices and mediums, it is very difficult for a topic to dominate the headlines for more than a fleeting moment. The Catalan separatist movement suffered from this.
There was genuine outrage across Europe and further afield in the aftermath of the crackdown. The images of citizens being assaulted by members of the Spanish police as they attempted to exercise their democratic right to vote was abhorrent to most people across the world.
I wrote that Rajoy had astutely guessed that whilst he may initially face a global backlash, he would not face major challenges from his Spanish constituents and that the ire abroad would quickly dissipate.
A crucial victory for Rajoy was the muted response to the violence from the European Union leaders and leaders of the EU 27. A crisis like this can either cause a period of introspection where you analyse the issues that have caused it or a hardening of attitudes where the blame is focused solely on the other side.
On this occasion Europe, in the midst of a number of existential challenges, leaders were happy to call this a Spanish problem and wash their hands of any responsibility. This attitude was summed up by the words of Frans Timmermans, the First Vice President of the European Parliament;
“Let me be clear: Violence does not solve anything in politics. It is never an answer, never a solution. And it can never be used as a weapon or instrument. None of us want to see violence in our societies. However, it is a duty for any government to uphold the law, and this sometimes does require the proportionate use of force.”
I believe this deafening silence of condemnation further emboldened Rajoy to pursue criminal charges against the leaders of the Catalan Independence bid, as well as dissolving the Catalan parliament. Arrest warrants were issued for at least ten Catalonian politicians. The majority of these were arrested and some remain in jail. Carlos Puigdemont and four former ministers fled to Belgium, where they remain. Spain initially tried to extradite them but has now withdrawn the five European arrest warrants.
The election on the 21st of December will be a decisive victory for Rajoy and Spanish unionist if they can break the majority currently held by pro-Independence parties. It is important to note that less than half of the electorate turned out to vote in the initial Independence Referendum in September.
The Spanish government claims that the silent majority have always favoured unity and may have voted for pro-independence parties in the past more to protect local interests as opposed to wanting an independent Catalonia. They can then state that the results of this election are a more accurate reflection of political desire for an independent Catalonia.
From the most recent polling data available, it does appear that the pro-independence parties will fall short of an absolute majority. The period of turmoil and uncertainty seems to have spooked much of the political centre ground. It is hard to imagine that was not the intention of the Spanish government.
However, a renewed majority for the separatist parties would be a crushing blow for the Spanish Government. It would be seen as a defiant rejection of political intimidation and violence by the pro-independence supporters in the region but met with fear by many others who see independence as a distraction from everyday life.
Unfortunately, I can only see the Spanish government extending the olive branch from a position of power. If the unionist parties break the majority or even gain a majority themselves, Rajoy can offer congratulations to the Catalan people for their pragmatism and for pulling Spain back from the brink, it will be labelled a victory for every citizen of Spain. He may even then adopt an apologetic tone for some the events that transpired over the previous four months.
The issue with this is that there are numerous secessionist movements across the European Union. Leaders of countries facing secessionist challenges may in future adopt the Rajoy model of delegitimizing regional elections and tacitly approving heavy-handedness and violence by national police forces, safe in the knowledge that the European Union will stay silent and call it a national, domestic issue.
After the admirable approach taken by the United Kingdom with the Scottish referendum, Europe may have now lurched a few steps right in its approach to regional independence movements. Coupled with the rise of far-right political parties, we may see a lot more political violence over the next decade.
This will force politicians of all hues to offer innovative ideas and solutions to ensure the evolving European Union projects continues to contain a liberal, pacifist core. If not, Europe may fracture from future events and political causes that the average EU citizen is not even aware of today. The European leaders chose to ignore the violence in Catalonia but that may in time may be the catalyst for the collapse of the entire European project if a red line against institutionalised political violence is not drawn.