[Editor’s Note: This is the second entry in our symposium on Sunday’s independence vote in Catalonia. We are grateful to our convener, Professor Zoran Oklopcic, for assembling an outstanding group of scholars to bring our readers helpful context and analysis during this important moment for the region. The introduction to our symposium is available here.]
—Antoni Abat i Ninet, University of Copenhagen Faculty of Law
As I am sitting now in front my computer writing this entry, I feel I need to begin with a disclaimer: I wonder if I am objective enough to write these lines after experiencing—in the first-person—such brutal, disproportionate, and senseless aggression of the Spanish police wrought against ordinary people—the people who only wanted to exercise their democratic right to vote, be heard, and make their voices count.
Instead, the scene evoked in Joan Miro’s famous painting is sadly relevant once again. The kinds of the abuses that the citizens of Catalonia are experiencing today, are comparable to those of a dark era in the history of Spain—Franco’s fascist regime. Those who have capacity to influence the Spanish government to stop escalating this crisis should keep that in mind. If the European institutions agree to simply observe the violation of the fundamental and core values —enshrined in the article 2 of their own founding act, the Treaty of the European Union—Catalans will need all the support they can get: not only of the entire European public opinion, but also other valid mediators. That help is urgently needed if Catalonia and Spain are to safeguard their democratic character.
Unlike in other countries that call themselves liberal democracies, the Catalan referendum on self-determination was held in very critical, almost unimaginable conditions. Unlike in other countries that claim to cherish the ideals of democratic self-government, Spanish government made it necessary for the ordinary citizens to protected the safety of their polling stations themselves, risking, in the process, their own physical safety. Together with the officials of the Catalan government, political representatives and private enterprises—many Catalan citizens were made the target of unlawful violence, unleashed by the repressive apparatus of the Spanish state.
This is not the time for euphemisms. For more than a week now, Catalonia is under siege, living under an undeclared state of emergency. Basic fundamental freedoms and rights are being regularly violated and curtailed. Tensions are rising. More than 6000 police and militarized officers are now occupying the land, as if Catalonia is a restless colonial possession, whose struggle for independence, demands pacification. Are in 1961, fighting to break free from an empire, or in 2017 seeking to achieve our democratic aspirations, within the European Union, through a dialogue?
Even if Spain had arguments to declare the state of emergency and suspend the autonomy of Catalonia—which, let it be no mistake, it de facto did— it ought to have done so following the procedures established in the Spanish Constitution, and respecting the procedures instituted to safeguard the fundamental rights and freedoms. So much for democratic legitimacy, constitutionalism and the rule of law.
What is particularly disturbing is that the police brutality we just experienced might not be the end of this illegal and abusive tendency, but rather only the first attempt to suppress the “seditious” will of the Catalans.
Some may argue that the referendum did not fulfill the basic requirements to be consider valid. How can such argument be taken seriously given the circumstances of repression, obstruction and police brutality? In fact, to claim that the referendum is not valid is to reward the repression—it is no different from blaming the victim and not the perpetrator. Those who cynically raise procedural issues at this point should remember that fact—especially since more than 700 000 votes were destroyed by the Spanish militarized police in its effort to obstruct the referendum.
Nonetheless, despite every effort of the Spanish state to obstruct it, the administration of the referendum was impartial, voting rolls clear, and 96 percent of polling stations were opened from 9 am to 8pm. All this is manifest in the report of the International Parliamentary Delegation on Catalonia’s Public Participation Process, which found the Catalan referendum in keeping with the standards of democratic legitimacy observed in the context of similar referendums elsewhere:
The delegation witnessed no coercion or intimidation and no attempt to influence the activity of the participants. There was a high level of participation across Catalonia in spite of challenges. The process was conducted in a positive and family-friendly atmosphere. The process was conducted in an efficient manner by a large number of volunteers. There were an adequate number of ballot boxes for the process. The process for verification of citizens intending to vote was of a high standard, utilizing ID cards. Those without cards were unable to vote (although they would be able to vote later). The details of each participant were recorded on paper, and confirmed by interrogation of a computer database, before each vote was cast. The computers used in each polling station were not connected to the internet providing greater confidence that they were free from abuse or interference. The computer software which facilitated the verification of IDs was off a high standard and was tested by the delegation to ensure that it did not allow false voting…
Since the Spanish government disputes these findings, why doesn’t it submit a request to the Commission of Venice, and ask for another, more ‘impartial’ independent report? I doubt it will do that. The findings would still be the same. The outcome of the referendum is legitimate and binding—despite the best efforts of the Spanish repressive apparatus.
Catalonia’s commitment to peace and non-violence is widely known to be strong and resilient. The testament to that are the 900, who were brutally repressed by the militarized Spanish police, and 3 millions of those, who—irrespective of how they cast their vote—participated in the referendum with dignity and without fear.
Why would the international community want to undermine this commitment to peace and non-violence? How many people need to die before the EU intervenes and protect our rights as the EU citizens? How long will it take before international actors recognize that a red line has been crossed, and the mediation between Catalonia and Spain is not just simply advisable, but rather that it is, in fact, morally required and politically urgent? Token gestures—such as putting the Spanish police under investigation by United Nations over its excessive use force—are not good enough. The time is running out.
Suggested Citation: Antoni Abat i Ninet, I-CONnect Symposium: The Independence Vote in Catalonia–! Aidez la Catalogne et l’Espagne !, Int’l J. Const. L. Blog, Oct. 3, 2017, at: http://www.iconnectblog.com/2017/10/i-connect-symposium-the-independence-vote-in-catalonia-aidez-la-catalogne-et-lespagne