Catalonia, currently an autonomous community within Spain, has its own culture, language, and history – including a long tradition of separatism. Its most recent attempt at independence came in the form of a referendum earlier this month. The Spanish government banned the referendum, arguing that it was unconstitutional.
— Govern. Generalitat (@govern) October 1, 2017
When Catalans turned out to vote, Spanish police forces beat them and destroyed ballot boxes. Hundreds of people were injured by police batons and rubber bullets while waiting to vote, or in demonstrations related to the vote. Human Rights Watch says that the Civil Guards and national police used “manifestly disproportionate … force.” The Spanish government and courts maintain that the referendum was illegal, and that their response was reasonable. Spain’s use of violence against people they claim are Spanish citizens is indefensible.
— David d’Enterria *X (@denterd) October 1, 2017
— Catalans for Yes (@CatalansForYes) October 1, 2017
— Sky News (@SkyNews) October 1, 2017
This sort of conflict is where the European Union could shine, but all it’s offered is a call for the two groups to “open a dialogue.” The Spanish government refuses mediation or negotiation as long as Catalan officials intend to declare independence, and Catalan President Carles Puigdemont said in a statement that the Spanish government has refused all mediation options offered by Catalonia. Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s government refuses to negotiate with the Catalan nationalists until Puigdemont “return[s] to the path of law.”
Rajoy is considering dissolving the Catalan parliament, a move that would have huge repercussions for what is now an autonomous community. Army barracks near Barcelona have been stocked for police use, signaling the intensity with which the Spanish government plans to respond should Catalan representatives officially declare independence. Spain is taking this seriously – so why isn’t the EU?
The EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights declares that “everyone has the right to … security of person,” but the EU is hesitant to get involved in what it considers a member state’s “internal affairs”, though they have had significant involvement in the conflict between Ireland and the United Kingdom and other supposedly internal conflicts.
Just a few days ago, the Spanish government imprisoned Catalan nationalist leaders for their role in the referendum, citing their acts of sedition. This conflict will continue – there will be more political prisoners, more rubber bullets, more state violence – until the international community takes action.
Barcelona Firefighters tonight protest againt the detention of civical Catalonia’s leaders pic.twitter.com/rTg8p9PqP7
— Help Catalonia (@CataloniaHelp2) October 16, 2017
The EU has a responsibility to protect the stability of the region. They seem to think the best way to do that is to timidly suggest negotiation. Although a separatist movement may be destabilizing in and of itself, state violence and a legacy of oppression aren’t much better. The EU’s inaction calls into question its viability as an institution of government, particularly given its self-professed “core values” of human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law, and respect for human rights. As the EU struggles to remain relevant, its fate depends on its ability to respond to crises like the one in Spain. If the EU is unable to intervene beyond offering mediation in the midst of state violence, Catalonia will continue to suffer.