We should be defending the fundamental rights of the people of Catalonia

An illegal vote. State police censoring political websites. Paramilitary police using violence against peaceful protesters. Calls from Amnesty International to release imprisoned political campaigners. The right-wing preparing to seize control of a democratically-elected government.

You might think that I’m talking about a backward dictatorship in a far-flung corner of the world. Rather depressingly, I’m not. Instead, these events are happening right now in one of our fellow EU countries.

By now, I’m sure most of you are aware of events in Catalonia. You may not be aware that this is not a sudden constitutional crisis, but the culmination of centuries of repression from Madrid and, more recently, a failure of the right-wing national government to engage in meaningful dialogue with the wealthy north-east region’s autonomous government.

Spain’s transition from the brutal dictatorship of General Franco to democracy has often been admired by foreign observers. 40 years on from the horrors of Franco’s Spain, the country is now regarded as a respected liberal democracy.

Let me be frank and shatter those illusions for you:

There is nothing liberal about national leaders refusing to engage with political problems (instead passing that responsibility to the courts and ensuring that, rather than progress reflecting changes to the political reality, the status quo is maintained at all costs).

There is nothing democratic about sending riot police in to beat peaceful demonstrators and elderly citizens to stop them from exercising the most fundamental democratic right: the right to vote.

Of course, Madrid is correct in asserting that the referendum on 1 October was illegal (well, contrary to the nation’s constitution), but instead of negotiating a legal referendum in which the “no” camp would likely have won (whilst opinion on independence is almost evenly split, official polls commissioned by the Catalan government suggest a small majority for “no”), they have acted with all the brutality of the European dictatorships of old.

Instead of immediately declaring independence on the strength of the referendum result, Catalan President Carles Puigdemont suspended that declaration and called for dialogue with Spain. As expected, Madrid refused. After all, why would they accept dialogue now, when they had refused 18 times in the past.

Now, Mariano Rajoyís government are preparing to invoke Article 155 of the constitution – allowing them to take control of the democratically-elected regional government. If they do, the regional government will immediately declare independence.

It is a frightening stand-off which, on its present trajectory, will not end well.

As liberals, we should be championing the Catalans’ freedom to protest peacefully, free from fear of arrest, censorship or police violence. As democrats, we should be condemning the use of courts to solve political problems, and calling for Madrid to enter the meaningful dialogue Barcelona is calling for.

It is not our place to dictate whether Catalonia becomes independent or not – clearly that is their decision alone. But as Liberal Democrats and Europeans, we should be unequivocal in our condemnation of the Spanish government’s iron-fisted approach and support of the Catalans’ fundamental democratic and human rights.

* Alan Collins PÈrez de BaÒos is a blogger and Liberal Democrat member from Medway. He tweets (in English, Catalan and Spanish) at @alancollinspdb. His wife is Catalan.

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16 Comments

  • Fundamental rights to protest must be protected. The central government must reform the constitution, including to allow legal referendums in future.

    However, suspending politicians who acted in excess of their powers and using the courts to ensure that authorities remain within their powers is reasonable. That is how the rule of law works, and it is the same in this country and any other law-abiding state. The police brutality was shocking, as was the initial failure to apologise, and failure to launch an inquiry. It was also strictly unnecessary to stop a referendum that has already been declared illegal.
    However, describing the overall approach as “iron-fisted” seems wide of the mark. Police crackdowns on the referendum were limited to some areas, mostly in Barcelona. The central government tolerated a regional leader passing laws to ensure and then declaring independence, all totally contrary to the constitution. The arrested political activists were arrested for allegedly leading a group who physically obstructed police officers from executing their duties and smashed up police vehicles. They are also bailed by the court pending trial. This isn’t the same as imprisoning them for political activities.

    To put this into perspective, America, UK, France, Spain itself, Portugal and other countries have fought wars over secession of new states. That isn’t what Spain is doing. Don’t forget that almost all countries with regional autonomy also have constitutional provisions allowing direct rule. The UK does, too. This is a paradigm case where such provision does need to be used, to maintain the constitutional order. The current regional government was elected by a large minority of electors. The majority of Catalonians probably do not want independence, certainly not a chaotic kind, right now. It would have been wrong for a minority (or, in my view, 50% plus one vote) to impose independence against the wishes of the rest of society. (A major constitutional change ought to require a supermajority, in my view). However, there must, within the constitutional order, be a reform of the constitution that is acceptable to the majority of catalans and respects their aspirations, otherwise there will cease to be government by consent.

  • Well said Jim. Whereas I agree the police response was excessive. To even consider declaring independence on the back of a flawed, illegal and unrepresentative vote is at best irresponsible and at worst dictatorial. It is, indeed, showing no consideration to a large proportion of the population’s view.
    Spain’s is a democratically elected government. Catalan’s overstepped their legal powers so arguably no longer is.
    Personally I think it is yet another example of childish posturing that does nobody any good. Fuelling the debate with “anti-democracy” rhetoric does nothing to reach a grown up and reasonable solution.
    ah yes, I remember grown up solutions like the Good Friday agreement. Imagine if we had one of those again…

  • @E so no 2nd referendum then? Or even any referendum?

  • paul barker 22nd Oct '17 - 1:47pm

    The background to this is a consistent finding in Polls that Independence for Catalonia has the support of about 2 in 5 Voters. The results of the Referendum fit with that, a 90% Yes vote on a 43% turnout = 39% of the whole.
    The Catalan Nationalists tried to get round that problem by their agressive stance, ensuring that other Parties would call for a boycott of the Vote. The whole process was sey up as a trap for The Spanish Authorities, a pit that The Madrid Government jumped into – boots first.
    While we must condemn the brutal & ham-fisted way The Madrid side of this have handled things, The Nationalists must take the biggest share of the blame.
    The Agreement between Democratic campaigners & The Armed Forces that saw Spain return to Democracy explicitly made National Unity part of the deal, Separatism was ruled out. This crisis brings a real threat of a New Civil War.
    We should call on both sides to back off.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 22nd Oct '17 - 1:57pm

    A very strong article with much to support but some aspects not covered and unknown by many or unreported.

    We must criticise or condemn the draconian panic measures and responses of the , plainly, overblown and out of touch central government.

    Any liberal or democratic reaction must be one of incredulity or anger at this.

    But, the independent Catalonia movement ,is itself the result of ,and implementation of, ideas and attitudes, even , in many walks of life, public and private, which are not things we should support. For years Catalan anti Spanish norms have been common. Use of Spanish, frowned upon, even banned , in teaching in school or university at times. History taught sometimes , biased against the Spanish in favour of the Catalan view.Divisive politics pitting Catalan against Spanish loyalists, when the two should be together.

    A lot of romantic nonsense is talked on such things, as if to divide , separate, propagandise is good and radical. It is wrong and disastrous.

  • Steve James 22nd Oct '17 - 2:54pm

    Alan, I think that you are being a bit partisan and a tad disingenuous with your post. Paul has probably written with more balance and tone.

    You seem to have glossed over the actions and inactions of the various police forces. A salient point would seem to be that the Mossos (local police) failed to carry out Judges orders on election day, even after having agreed to them, which left the Policia National and Guardia Civil unprepared the task then required of them. So your statement about “sending riot police in to beat peaceful demonstrators and elderly citizens to stop them from exercising the most fundamental democratic right: the right to vote” – doesn’t really stack up. Yes we saw scenes of violence but I would suggest that no more, and probably less, then at any other situation in Western Europe where members of the public put themselves in a position where they are deliberately hindering the police in carrying out their lawful duty. That is very different from organising a demonstration that is peaceful. Barcelona has a good history of peaceful demonstrations both for and against independence. But there have also been cases where confrontation has been encouraged. One such case was where members of the public were incited by two of the separatist organisations to surround a building which was legally being searched by police. It is for that incitement, as I understand it, for which the two “Jordis” are being investigated on remand. That incident, whilst very frightening for the members of the public trapped with the police inside the building for many hours also resulted in the trashing of a number of police cars and the stealing of weapons and ammunition. Hardly the action of people engaged in peaceful protest.

    I tend agree with “E” who said above: “I think it is yet another example of childish posturing that does nobody any good. Fuelling the debate with “anti-democracy” rhetoric does nothing to reach a grown up and reasonable solution.”

    Hopefully, in the next week, both sides can back off a little otherwise I can’t see this ending well.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 22nd Oct '17 - 4:07pm

    Superb from Peter Harvey

    There are often two sides to every story.

    As Liberal Democrats we know there are usually more than three !

    The media , the extremes fuelled today too often everywhere, need the sort of analysis we get and provide more here on this site than in very many other places.

    This is to the credit of the editors and those of us who contribute .

  • I think this post has cemented my view that I was absolutely right to leave the `Liberal Democrats` last year. They are neither Liberal nor Democrat and see things in terms of process and the status quo – they have in effect become the new conservative party.

    If this is the kind of static thinking then they will be on 7% forever. It’s really weird – they don’t want a 2nd referendum in Scotland but do want one for the UK over Brexit. However, they don’t want one in Catalonia due to issues of process. It seems they are just another member of the regressive left – wanting votes and to circumvent democracy to uphold their own prejudices while denying democracy when it’s about the globalist `big is always better` system affirmation.

  • Maurice Leeke 23rd Oct '17 - 11:08am

    Independence is a legitimate political aspiration for any community – as is remaining in an existing power bloc.
    This is true for Catalonia/Spain; Scotland/UK; UK/EU.
    It is reasonable that there should be the need for a demonstrable level of popular support for any proposed change.
    What is not reasonable is for there to be no democratic avenue for those who seek independence to be able to democratically pursue their claim for independence. It is not sufficient to say that the “Constitution” forbids it. If democratic and peaceful means are denied to citizens – how then should they advance their cause ?
    The Spanish government has repeatedly hidden behind the constitution in refusing to enter into any dialogue with representatives of Catalonia about independence.
    Peter Harvey, above, offers a British parallel. Firstly I think we should acknowledge Michael Moore’s success as Liberal Democrat Secretary of State for Scotland in achieving a solution to a very similar conundrum. But secondly we need to recognise that if Holyrood asks for a second referendum, and it is repeatedly refused by the British government, that that is unlikely to be the end of the matter. In extremis, if Scotland needs to hold that referendum without the consent of Westminster, surely, as Liberals, we would all support them.
    Personally I deplore the attitude of our “sister-party” Ciudadanos. Nowhere have I seen a clear denunciation from them of the police violence.
    May I suggest that a more appropriate response from all of us is to call for dialogue to achieve an acceptable mechanism to enable the people of Catalonia to democratically and peacefully decide upon their own future, whether within or alongside the Spanish state.

  • You really couldn’t make up a worse set of behaviours from both sides of this acrimonious fiasco. For the Spanish government it reads like a headline from a joke news website such as NewsThump: “Newsflash: man who doesn’t like a region which wants more autonomy reacts by revoking all of their existing autonomy.” Erm….

    On the other side are Catalan nationalists playing the monstrous identity game: creating divisions and playing on them. Alistair Carmichael put this excellently on his facebook page a few weeks ago: “The first chapter in the identity politics play book is to unite people who share your identity around your politics by generating a sense of grievance and promoting a narrative that you are so different and separate from other identities that they can not remain part of a constitutional unit with people of a different identity.”

  • Catalonia produces a fifth of Spain’s wealth. My advice to the Spanish government is to suggest another referendum, free and fair and independently monitored.

  • Ed Shepherd 24th Oct '17 - 7:22am

    There can be no excuse for agents of the state to have used violence against people queuing up to vote. The people were justified if they tried to block the police from taking ballot boxes or interfering with the voters. There was no need for the police to have tried to stop the voting go ahead. The correct course of action would have been to have allowed the vote to go ahead and for the court to have declared whether the outcome had legal validity. Police officers who used violence or intimidation should be put on trial. This incident also shows the toothlesssness of the EU and possibly the ECHR when faced with violent suppression of a peaceful activity: voting.

  • Sarah Noble 24th Oct '17 - 8:46pm

    The idea that 41% of voters is a proportion too low to declare independence is a strange one coming from British commentators, especially as Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn pursuing Hard Brexit on the back of 37% of Britons.

  • nvelope2003 28th Oct '17 - 9:27pm

    James has made some very good points about the Liberal Democrats. I wonder why no one has commented on them. Maybe there is too much truth in them for comfort ?

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