Spain’s Catalonia issue turns into a test for the EU

The scenes in Catalonia, where local authorities say more than 400 people were hurt by police, are reminiscent of violent scenes in Eastern Europe that have tested, time and again, the European Union.

Spanish police, trying to prevent a referendum on independence from going ahead because it was declared unconstitutional by the courts, hit people with batons, dragged them off by their hair and even fired rubber bullets, according to videos and accounts posted on social media.

It is, of course, a far cry from the miners’ descents on the Romanian capital Bucharest in the 1990s when people were killed, but it is nevertheless shocking to see the brutality of Spanish police. Like the miners’ violence in the 1990s in Bucharest, the current events risk leaving their mark over years, if not decades.

More recently, the 2014 Ukrainian “Euromaidan” revolution ended with then-president Yanukovych fleeing to Russia and Russia invading parts of Ukraine. Thousands of people have died in that conflict.

The main message that Sunday’s violence seems to convey is that the Spanish government responds disproportionately to defiance. Yes, it is true that the Catalan referendum had been declared illegal by the Constitutional Court. But the fact that peaceful people were attacked by police simply for wanting to cast their ballot gives it legitimacy even in the eyes of those who disagreed with it.

The fact that the mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau, called for Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to resign illustrates this. Colau supported the vote in order to allow Catalans to express their will, but had admitted that it could be considered binding, since it was not agreed by the state.

The referendum results, such as they are, cannot be taken seriously. People were able to vote at any station they wanted, and with activists smuggling the ballots in the polling stations in the mornings and police later seizing them in some stations, there can be no reliable vote count.

Besides, like this article by Politico suggests, misinformation and online bots very likely played a role in people’s decision, just like in the case of Brexit last year.

Still, the escalation of violence has turned what was a local, or at most national, issue into an international one, in which the European Union has been called to intervene. Just like in the case of violence in Eastern Europe, the EU is again asked to resolve an issue it has neither the authority, nor the tools, to tackle.

What the EU can do, though, is put pressure on Rajoy to sit down and negotiate a solution to the Catalan crisis. More importantly, the solution should include finding and punishing those culpable for violence against civilians. Whether it succeeds will be a big test for the EU.