My first trip abroad as a young adult was to Catalonia, as part of a youth delegation in Barcelona. It was a ten-day intoxicating blur of culinary, artistic, historic, and linguistic discovery. The experience provided me with an appreciation of a people who proudly informed me that they spoke Catalan, not Spanish, and who warmly shared everything they loved about their home.
Decades later, I still have wonderful memories: walking down Las Ramblas; taking in Antoni Gaudí’s architectural brilliance; sampling seafood paella and tapas while sipping sangria in tiny, crowded bars; being mesmerized by the beauty of sardana dance; and eating oven-fresh, sugar-covered churros from a small bakery near the opera house at two in the morning.
I fell in love with the city and came home with a Catalonian flag and a Barcelona T-shirt that I still occasionally wear to bed. My time in Catalonia cemented and fueled my love for travel and an appreciation of foreign cultures.
This past Sunday, as the Catalonian independence referendum was expected to unfold, I followed the news closely. I knew tensions were high. The Spanish government had declared the referendum illegal, and many international onlookers wondered whether it would take place at all.
Catalonia has a long history of pro-secessionist sentiment. It’s a wealthy region, which, some say, contributes more to Spain than it gets back. However, many Catalans are fiercely opposed to independence. Although a non-binding vote in 2014 showed 80 per cent of Catalans in favour of independence, some observers contend that the true level of support is likely around the 50 per cent mark. Much like in Quebec, Catalonia’s separatist movement will ensure independence remains on the agenda, without necessarily achieving it anytime soon.
Though independence was supported by 90 per cent of the 2.29 million Catalans who voted on Sunday, an equal number of the 5.3 million registered voters didn’t vote at all. Of course, the Spanish government’s threats and aggressive stance towards talk of independence may have had something to do with the turnout.
The issue remains complicated, and with the possibility of a unilateral declaration by Catalonia of independence later this month, along with a suspension of Catalan autonomy by the Spanish government, the world will be watching closely.
This isn’t about the legality of Catalan’s referendum. It’s about the legitimacy of the response it provoked. While not particularly a fan of nationalism, I understand and respect both a people’s desire for autonomy and a people’s desire for their country to remain united. I was prepared to see division, opposition, and tension this past Sunday. But I wasn’t prepared to see the violence.
There were images of riot police cracking down on citizens as they waited in line to vote and videos of officers confiscating ballot boxes while jumping on people and striking them with batons. There were citizens severely injured by rubber bullets, bloodied seniors dragged down stairs and thrown to the ground, terrorized students cowering on the floor, and Catalan firefighters shielding people from Spanish police. None of these scenes were becoming of a modern democracy.
By the time it was all over, more than 700 people were injured. Madrid, in a tone-deaf and defiant statement, called the police response “unpleasant” but “proportionate.” International onlookers, including Amnesty International, have condemned the excessive use of force.
You don’t have to support Catalan independence to oppose the anti-democratic actions of the Spanish police. People have the right to determine their future and to do so free from violence. They have the right to peacefully exercise their democratic right to vote in a referendum (even if its legality is uncertain) without being greeted by rubber bullets or batons. Otherwise, you’re no longer a democracy, but a fascist state, and Spain has already experienced that.
According to the latest news, the European Commission has sided with the Spanish government. Attempting to hold an independence referendum is seen as a violation of the Spanish constitution, and therefore an indirect threat to the rule of law in all EU countries.
Both the Catalan and the Spanish governments are ramping up the pressure in a game of chicken that will not end well. The Spanish government’s violent response has not squelched the Catalonian movement for independence. It has only served to cement the resolve of many and to mar the country’s international reputation, while exposing the EU’s hypocrisy in hesitating to condemn violence by one of its members.
Whether a peaceful political solution to the constitutional crisis is found or not, for many Catalonians, last Sunday’s state-sanctioned violence has already guaranteed a split with Spain, in spirit, if not in law.