Catalonia vs Spain: democracy tested

The state doesn’t exist independently of its people. The state is the people, who can demand more rights, more power and even secession.

Students in Catalonia march in support of the region's independence, September 2017 (photo credit: JON NAZCA/ REUTERS)
Students in Catalonia march in support of the region's independence, September 2017
(photo credit: JON NAZCA/ REUTERS)
Anyone who wants to understand the essence of last week’s dramatic events in Catalonia, to acknowledge what the referendum on independence was really about, should come to see the Eternal Flame in the Gothic quarter of Barcelona.
The Fossar de los Moreres is a memorial square, situated close to the Maria del Mar basilica. The monument was built after a communal grave of the defenders of the city, slaughtered following the Siege of Barcelona at the end of the War of the Spanish Succession in 1714, was discovered. 300 years later the memory is still alive, and fresh flowers are laid there every day.
Two days prior to the referendum, a huge rally took place at Montjuïc. Many thousands of Catalans, Spaniards and Europeans were there to support the referendum and each other, singing hymns of Catalonia and patriotic songs. Many of these songs had connotations of the Frankist period, when the Catalonian language was forbidden and those who tried to spread knowledge about Catalonian history and heritage were persecuted. The grandfather of a friend who lives in Barcelona was fined for speaking Catalonian on the phone sometime during the sixties.
The historical memory of injustice and persecution runs deep in Catalonians, regardless of their support for or objection to separation from Spain. The brutal force that was used by Spanish police against the voters who came to the polling stations was just another link in this historical chain.
On Sunday morning, October 1, I found myself in the midst of a violent and bloody event that felt much more like something that would happen in the Middle East than in Europe. As a part of an international parliamentary delegation of observers on the referendum, I visited a few polling stations in Barcelona, Terragona, Valls and other Catalonian cities.
By 10 a.m. we had already witnessed the Guarida Civil – the national police force – confiscating ballot boxes and other voting equipment, dispersing voters by force, shuttering schools doors and windows.
Then the shooting begun and rubber bullets started to fly. Later these bullets were picked up by plainclothes policeman.
One minute prior to the shooting the young people holding hands and sitting together on the ground were singing beautifully, the next moment they were screaming in pain and horror. Older people around us said that it brought up bad memories from Spain’s recent authoritarian past; the young ones, who grew up believing that human rights and freedom of expression are sacred, were speechless.
Over 850 Spanish citizens were wounded during the day of the referendum, when placards with words “Mes Democracia” decorate the exquisite buildings of Barcelona. Those who beat and shot them were Spanish citizens, too. Blood was spilled in the heart of Europe with very few voices inside the EU condemning the excessive use of violence.
What was being tested there was not only Spanish democracy, but the European way of life, respect for freedom of expression, human rights and the belief that people have the right to self-determination. One must remember that the same EU leaders and officials who suddenly became silent in the face of the violence in Catalonia are usually very vocal when similar misdeeds occur in the Middle East. It’s always curious when one sees the mote in one’s brother’s eye but not see the beam in one’s own.
Today it’s quite clear though that at some point Europe will have to react, as the situation in Catalonia will continue to develop rapidly. The leaders of Europe probably understand today that they can’t hide behind the debate on the legality of the referendum. The state doesn’t exist independently of its people. The state is the people, who can demand more rights, more power and even secession. Many atrocities and wrongdoings in the world were and are still legal, many democratic processes – such as the American Revolution – were labeled illegal in the beginning. When millions of European citizens demand to be heard, Europe – and the world – should listen, otherwise what is the value of such high words as “democracy,” “human rights” and “self-determination”? What should be happening between Barcelona and Madrid today is a political dialogue. Too much blood was spilled in the past over the issues of independence and separation. Neither Spain nor Europe can afford more violence on their soil. After all, this is what Europe is trying to promote in the Middle East – political dialogue, moderation and climb-downs. If Europe cannot successfully meet this challenge in its own home, the world will suffer the consequences.
The author is a member of the Knesset for the Zionist Union and an expert on Middle East affairs.