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.
This post was originally published on Liberal Democrat Voice.