Amongst the host of feudal fiefdoms and titles gathered under the Spanish crown by the marriage of Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile were the counties of Catalonia. The region has had a somewhat shaky relation to the monarchy since, including revolts and uprisings in the area taking place 1640 to 1659, 1687 to 1689, 1693, 1706 to 1714, 1833 to 1840, and obviously during the civil war of 1936 to 1939. Several of these were fought against the backdrop of larger conflicts, either as part of internal Spanish struggles or as part of wars with other European powers.
Before getting into what happened in Catalonia on Sunday, a number of things should be noticed. To begin with, no poll that I have seen have given Catalan independence more than 40% popular support in the region, most polling somewhat lower. The whole issue has also been a non-question amongst politicians or general populations outside of Spain. Few Europeans were likely to even have heard about the separatism, let alone the fact that a non-binding referendum had been held back in 2014. There is precious little to indicate that this new one would have made anything more than temporary waves in the news as well. In fact, many of the same reactions and one-liners used then from both Madrid, Barcelona, and the international community could be cut-pasted into the current debate.
If not for the police violence.
It should be remembered that Spain only returned to democracy in 1976 following the death of Franco, and that the last (failed) military coup took place in 1981 (a planned one being foiled before put into place the following year). As such, a considerably part of the Spanish population have personal memories of living in an authoritarian state. This makes the scenes showed even more powerful amongst the Catalans, and it is hard not to think that the scenes are exactly what could sway large swaths of the population to a pro-independence stance.
But perhaps of even greater importance is the impact it will have on the image held by the international community. People are sharing pictures of riot police beating old and young apparently indiscriminate, and politicians are asked to denounce the actions of the Spanish government.
As is usually the case, some of the pictures are old, some faked, and some doesn’t tell the whole story. Still, there are certainly enough real ones to cause quite an outrage, and they portray a powerful story of peaceful protesters being denied their right to make democratic choices.
Now, strictly legally there is no justification to the Catalan referendum. It goes against both domestic and international law, as unilateral declarations of independence doesn’t actually hold any intrinsic value (regardless of how democratic the process leading up to them has been). As such, getting the recognition from other states are key, something which the Catalan cause has seemed hard-pressed to get (with the exception of certain countries which have an interest in getting the favour back in another place, or which generally like to destabilise Europe).
And this is why the actions of the Spanish government is so mind boggling. Everyone must have realised that there would be violence if small(ish) groups of outnumbered riot police would try and stop the voting. Madrid, not Barcelona, has managed to lift the question of Catalan independence to the forefront of European politics. Voters who earlier hadn’t had any particular opinion about it are suddenly discussing it with colleagues and friends, and are calling for their governments to condemn the violence. It is also important to note that a large number of EU-countries cherish memories of how they have broken free from larger countries, and it isn’t difficult to imagine e.g. current ministers in the Baltic States remembering their own personal experiences from the break-up of the Soviet Union. Spanish attempts to persuade foreign politicians to stay out of their “domestic affairs” also run a serious risk of backfiring, with e.g. the email to Finnish MP Kärnä by the Spanish ambassador likely not furthering its intended aim. The seeds to international recognition might have been planted by pictures of police beating the very people they are sworn to protect.
It is hard to see Sunday’s referendum as anything but a major victory for Catalan independence. This is regardless of the fact that any numbers quoted by the local government are next to impossible to verify independently. How the story continues from here is anyone’s guess, but I dare say that next week will begin without a de facto independent Catalonia. However, I will also make the guess that unless Madrid radically reverse how they tackle the separatism, the Iberian wedding might soon be headed for a divorce.