Blog of the International Journal of Constitutional Law

I-CONnect Symposium: The Independence Vote in Catalonia–! Aidez la Catalogne et l’Espagne !

[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:


6 responses to “I-CONnect Symposium: The Independence Vote in Catalonia–! Aidez la Catalogne et l’Espagne !”

  1. Harold O.M. Rocha Avatar
    Harold O.M. Rocha

    Interesting, if subjective and disingenuous, position by Professor Abat i Ninet. I look forward to Professor Ferreres Comellá´s submission. Meanwhile, here is the view of Javier Solana, former secretary general of NATO, former head of foreign policy for the European Union, and a distinguished fellow on foreign policy at Brookings.

  2. John Geoffroy Avatar
    John Geoffroy

    Mr. Rocha, you mean Javier Solana ? the NATO guy that accepted the bombing of Yugoslavia? do you think that it is a good idea to quote him in the present balkanization process in Spain?

  3. Joan Vergés-Gifra Avatar
    Joan Vergés-Gifra

    I fully agree with Prof. Antoni Abat Ninet that time is running out in Spain about Catalonia. A vast majority of Catalan citizens have been asking since 2010 for either a binding or non-binding referendum on the “political status” of Catalonia within Spain. There might be different interpretations of what has caused that majority. But no one can deny that it is a fact. It is also a fact that the yearning for an agreed voting to solve the issue has been systematically diminished or even prosecuted. If the European Union turns a blind eye on the problem the consequences in terms of democratic credibility for the European project are going to be really important. Which international actor is going to take the EU seriously if it is incapable of doing nothing to solve a “democratic problem” within the continent?

  4. J. Aranguren Avatar
    J. Aranguren

    I entered to read this post with the hope of finding an analysis of the current situation in Catalonia by an academic. But what I found was an article that is closer to political propaganda, that thing that nowadays is called post-truth or fake news that to an academic piece. For that reason, I would like to share some thoughts about it.
    The author talks about “brutal, disproportionate, and senseless aggression of the Spanish police against ordinary people” but makes no mention to the fact that those ordinary citizens were consciously ignoring resolutions of the Constitutional Court and the Superior Court of Catalonia that declared the referendum illegal and ordered the police to close the polling stations and seize the ballot boxes. It is true, and regrettable, that police actions were chaotic, badly planned and executed, in some cases, with excessive force. Surprisingly, the author made no mention to the fact that those “ordinary citizens” used children as human shields against the police. Also, not a word about the fake news spread by some Catalonian MPs, with the help of Russian media, with photos taken years ago or in other countries to create a false sense of widespread repression.
    The reference to Franco´s regime is just childish. Franco´s regime was, plain and simple, a dictatorship that did not respect human rights. Since 1978, Catalonia has one of the greatest level of self-government that we can find in Europe. Catalans voted 47 times in free elections since Franco´s death. They are EU citizens because the Kingdom of Spain is part of the EU (article 52 of the Treaty of the EU) and they will lose their European citizenship as the will be outside the EU after secession. Maybe with the comparison with Franco the author wanted point out that the referendum held on Sunday had the same guarantees as those two organized by the dictator; none. Democracy is much more that voting, procedure is an essential part of its core, an aspect that has been disregarded in this case.
    If “Catalonia’s commitment to peace and non-violence is widely known to be strong and resilient”, the author will agree with me that harassing police officers and their families, including children at school that are labeled by their teachers as traitors and repressors, cannot be accepted in a democratic state. Attacking opposition MPs and journalists is also not acceptable. That has, sadly, happened in the last couple of days in Catalonia.
    The author states that “the administration of the referendum was impartial”. I must disagree with that statement. Which body was impartial? The electoral board appointed by the Parliament of Catalonia according to article 17 of the Referendum act resigned days before the vote after they were fined by the Constitutional Court. They were not replaced by the Parliament and, therefore, any other electoral body was illegal. Also, minutes before polls were set to open the Generalitat tried to implement a universal census in a clear breach of article 28 of the Referendum Act. This resulted in an unlawful referendum with no guarantees at all. There are clear evidences of people voting multiple times as the census database was offline for most of the day. Also, according to the official results there are some towns in the Pyrenees with twice more votes casted than population living there.
    There is no need to refer the issue to the Commission of Venice as the author claims. This is because the Commission has already declared in a letter issued the 2nd of June to President Puigdemont that “any referendum must be carried out in full compliance with the Constitution and the applicable legislation”. As this was not the case, it is clear that it does not meet the criteria of the Commission, as aspect that was emphasized days before the vote by the Secretary of the Comission, Thomas Markert.
    The Spanish minority government has mismanaged the situation in Catalonia and a change of course is needed. But it is difficult to reach a compromise with a government in Barcelona that refuses to abide by the law, even its own Statute of Autonomy or its own –ilegal- referendum act. If we want to find common ground and reach a solution it is time to return to the constitutional order. If there is a strong desire to change it, the Parliament of Catalonia has the power to initiate a Constitutional reform, but so far, it has never used that prerogative. A UDI, as President Puigdemont seems ready to declare, is not a solution, and will be bad and painful for all our fellow citizens.

  5. Antoni Abat i Ninet Avatar
    Antoni Abat i Ninet

    Dear Mr. Aranguren,
    Thank you very much for your comment. It is a long comment and I can´t go in deep answering all the points that you remark. Please, first let me tell you that I consider that your narration of the facts seems to me the real political propaganda. Frankly, saying that the people that was attacked used children as human shields, in my opinion, desqualifies your comment, it is simply not true, immoral and disrespectful. I agree that democracy is much more than an election procedure, but do not get confused, people does not hurt with ballots but police with bullets.
    A referendum, even that can be considered illegal, inaccurate or unfair, which I disagree, can not be repressed as the Spanish police officers did, not in a democratic regime. A democracy has other tools than violence.

    Please also allow me to tell you, that you consideration of the catalan secessionist movement violent is also untrue and contributes in the argument of the justification of the repression. If there is or have been any harassment to police officers or others as you suggest, I strongly condemn these acts. I also expected a condemn, or at least a word, of the Spanish King about the violent repression performed by the Spanish Police and not an speech giving carte blanche to more repression, with a painting of King Carlos III with an stick, a king who banned Catalan language in schools.

  6. […] and the constitutional quality of their arguments, with predominantly negative results, while ANTONI ABAT I NINET passionately accuses the Spanish government for its policy of a de facto state of emergency. […]

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