The 1st October 2017 was a dark day, not just in Spain, but in Europe as a whole. Regardless of whether or not you think it was right for the Catalan government to hold an independence referendum that had been declared illegal by the Spanish Constitutional Court, as it goes against the 1978 constitution, the Spanish government’s response has been disproportionate and scandalous. Even before the referendum began, websites relating to the referendum had been blocked in a move of censorship more reminiscent of Turkey or China than an EU member state.
On the day of the referendum, riot police assaulted ordinary citizens who were just exercising – or attempting to exercise – their democratic right to vote. According to some reports, almost 900 people were injured in the clashes. BBC News shared a video of police shoving, kicking, and dragging people by the hair. Polling stations were stormed and ballot boxes seized. Citizens were fired at with rubber bullets. There was, of course, violence on both sides, and the Spanish interior ministry was quick to share on its Twitter account a video of a police officer being hit with a chair. But the scale of police brutality was shocking and outrageous. The vast majority of Catalan citizens just wanted to vote peacefully but this democratic right was confiscated and trampled under the boot of the Guardia Civil.
If this had taken place in a non-European country, there would have been immediate condemnation by European leaders. Although, the European Commission did declare in its statement on 2 October that “Violence can never be an instrument in politics”, the vagueness of these eight words in a statement of 162 words is not just disappointing, it is shameful. It is a similar sort of moral to that used by Donald Trump in his claim that both sides were culpable following the Charlottesville protests.
To follow this statement with the declaration: “We trust the leadership of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to manage this difficult process”, is an insult to the hundreds of peaceful European citizens who were brutalised by their police force and their government.
Just as the EU was right to speak out against the anti-democratic governments of Poland and Hungary, so too should it have condemned Rajoy, who has espoused the despicable tactics of Francisco Franco, the fascist dictator whose shadow evidently still hangs over Spain.
The UK government has taken a similar line to the European Commission, with Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson tweeting: “The Catalonian referendum is a matter for the Spanish govt & people.” It is the sort of close-minded thinking you would expect from an isolationist such as Johnson, but it is extremely disheartening to see the European Union meekly stand by and look the other way while voter suppression was blatantly carried out by an EU member state.
To express your contempt for the tactics of Rajoy’s government and the brutality of the Guardia Civil does not make you a supporter of Catalan independence. You might think it’s a great idea, you might think it’s daft, but that is not what is important here. What matters is democracy. I was proud to vote Remain in the EU referendum and I was devastated by the result, but if the European Union is too cowardly to speak out against injustice and voter suppression then it deserves to fail.
Image: Rob Shenk via Flickr