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02 Oct 17

EU’s Silence Over Catalonia Sends Worrying Message

Srecko Latal

Europe’s silence over the violence in Spain sends a bad message to the Balkans – where we know from grim experience that police brutality and court orders don’t stop referendums but foster them.

Pro independence supports wrapped by Catalan pro independence flags stand in front a balcony while people protest with banner reading, ''Self determination'' in support of the Catalonia's secession referendum. Photo: Alvaro Barrientos/AP

I am not an expert on Spanish constitutional, ethnic or political affairs and would not normally take it upon myself to judge whether the Catalan government had a right to hold an independence referendum this Sunday or not.

However, watching the TV footage of the ugly, pointless brutality of the Spanish police mishandling Catalan people, especially women and elderly, I felt a strong urge to say a few things.

First, whether or not the people of Catalonia had a right to hold a referendum, the overreaction of the Spanish government and the brutality of its police has now provided it with new legitimacy and support from all around the globe.  

The fact that some 850 civilians were injured in this violence, and "only" 33 police, clearly shows which side was on the receiving end.

We in the “not-so-democratic” countries such as Bosnia or the rest of the Balkans are used to such ratios on similar occasions.

But we have also learned to respect “more democratic countries” because there, when street riots occur, it is often the police that acts with most restraint and ends up being more on the receiving end of the beatings.

Clearly this was not the case in Catalonia on Sunday.

If the Spanish government ever had a chance to stop Catalonia from seceding, I would say that this chance has now been seriously reduced – or has even gone – while Catalan’s move towards independence seems ever more imminent.

Second, after Brexit, this is now the second biggest test for the EU – and the Balkans and the whole world is watching carefully. Again, it is not the legality of the Catalan referendum that is at stake but the right of people to have their say, even if it leads to nothing.

This gross overreaction on the part of the Spanish police has undermined the legitimacy of a government that send riot police against [mostly peaceful] men, women and children.

Given that Spain is also a proud member of the EU, this situation has put at stake the legitimacy of the entire European Union.

If EU leaders continue ignoring police brutality in Spain, they are sending a bad message that will be heard across the Balkans and the rest of the world.

When will politicians finally stop listening to their overblown egos and start to apply some common sense? It seems that leaders and strongmen often want to have things happen their way, even when they could achieve a much better result by applying more common sense, strategy and decency.

Sunday’s referendum in Catalonia reminds me very much of another referendum, held by the government of the Serb-dominated entity in Bosnia, Republika Srpska, last September.

That vote sought public support for the official celebration in the entity of a national day after Bosnia's Constitutional Court had ruled against it as unconstitutional.

The same court ruled that holding a referendum in support of the national day was also unconstitutional.

However, the referendum went ahead nevertheless, which triggered lots of tension and drew strong criticism from many international and local officials.

Yet, it was exactly this attention and criticism that made the referendum legitimate in the eyes of many RS citizens – even among many who had never really celebrated the RS day before, and had not planned to participate in the referendum. Now, they, too, came out and voted to keep it.

As a result of that [illegal] referendum, the RS Day – which in previous years had passed off without attracting much notice - has become a lightning rod for exactly those same national feelings that the opponents of the referendum wanted to check.

I suspect that Sunday’s brutal behaviour by the Spanish police has provided the Catalan referendum with much more legitimacy and popular local and international support than it would have had if Spain had ignored it.

The big question is not about the legality of some “happening of the people” but about the way such events are handled.

Whether it is Spain, Bosnia or somewhere else, constitutions, laws, bylaws or brutal force cannot be used to prevent the disintegration of a state or a society.

The authorities should instead be doing everything possible to help and maintain its integration. There is a world of difference between the two approaches.

Talk about it!

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