Op-ed: Spanish authorities' overreaction to Catalonian referendum - was it worth it?
Barcelona residents holding Estaladas flags (unofficial flag of the Catalan independence supporters), October 2017. REUTERS/Albert Gea.jpg
Madrid responded to this weekend’s referendum on by sending in thousands of police who beat up voters and shot non-violent activists with rubber bullets. It is difficult to picture a more counter-productive course of action. According to the polls, independence was not heavily favored leading up to the referendum. The could have stuck to a simple playbook: allow the referendum to proceed and affirm the results if it failed and declare them null if it succeeded.
Instead, they have made the headlines by breaking the key international norm of tolerating peaceful demonstrations and supporting democratic representation.
A good-faith effort to move toward a federalist system may be one way to reduce the pressure. The government moved thousands of police into the region instead. Catalan social media is now filled with videos of police beating elderly men, throwing people down stairs, hitting them in the face and neck, dragging elderly women through the streets, and striking citizens with truncheons.
As if such imagery is not stark enough, there is even footage of police confiscating ballot boxes from polling stations, scoffing at the universal symbol of democracy.
And all of that is a gift to the independence movement. Any separatist group that hopes to set up a recognized sovereign state has to struggle with international norms. The most important is the norm of territorial integrity.
However, there is a competing principle of self-determination, enshrined in Chapter 1 of the UN Charter, and a perceived right to decent representation in government. Separatist movements usually claim this principle as their foundation, arguing that the central government is failing to hold up its end of the bargain.
The rest of the world usually ignores such claims of course, especially when they come from democratically represented citizens. But add a violent crackdown and the calculations are adjusted. In fact, they see such state suppression as proof that the government has indeed lost legitimacy.
Following Kosovo’s declaration of independence in 1990 for example, it was Serbia’s dissolution of the Kosovar government, the firing of 100,000 ethnic Albanian workers, repeated raids of Albanian Kosovar villages, and a heavy-handed military presence that began the long road to autonomy for Kosovo.
What began with international concern over ethnic cleansing culminated in full-scale intervention before leading to rapidly snowballing recognition of an independent Kosovar state. No state will recognize an independent Catalonia right now. The only states that might officially recognize Catalan independence are those for which there would be no cost: small states with no relations with Spain or the EU and no separatist movements of their own.
However, research shows that there are many other ways third-parties can support separatist movements: introducing resolutions in the UN or the EU, proposing sanctions, funding their militaries, suspending diplomatic contact, et cetera. Such lesser acts of recognition or support contribute to the legitimacy of these movements.
Remember that Bangladesh and South Sudan weren’t recognized by any other states when they first declared independence.But following months or years of violence, the world’s favor grew, and so did the pressure for widespread recognition. If the Spanish over-reaction continues rapidly, other countries will start expressing concern for the situation in Catalonia, and officials in some (especially former colonies) will start discussing Catalan claims.
If the Spanish government wants to get back on the right side of the news, it should consider every possibility to re-establish the legitimacy of its government in Catalonia. A good-faith effort to move toward a federalist system in Spain may be one way to take off the pressure; reversing the incendiary 2010 court decision to strip the region of certain autonomous powers — over language, the judicial system, and other rights of self-rule — may be another.
Madrid should certainly not suspend Catalan autonomy unless it wants to see a continued confrontation that will only be characterized as a return to Spain’s dictatorial past. Otherwise, Catalans may soon be much more successful when they reach out to increasingly sympathetic countries for support.