On Friday the 27th of October as the Spanish Central government under Prime Minster Mariano Rajoy moved to implement direct rule on the autonomous region of Catalonia, the Catalonian parliament voted to declare independence from Spain. This represents the latest twists in the ongoing saga of Catalonian independent. This is a movement that has been gaining traction for years but has finally pushed this situation to the edge in the last few weeks with a vote for independence being held on October 1st.

This crisis has placed particular strain on the EU and its various member states who have ended up in bind over whether or not to support the democratic rights of Catalonians, or to protect the rule of law and territorial integrity of a fellow member state. Worse yet is that fact that many EU countries have their own regions with budding or active secessions movements such as Bavaria in Germany, the Basque region in France and Veneto and Lombardy in Italy which on October 23rd both voted for more autonomy. These countries under no circumstances want to fan the flames of their own secession movements, but also want to be seen to support democratic votes. It is not an easy line to tread.

The contested vote.

This current crisis had been brewing for a while, but it exploded into the international media on October 1st after Catalonia held a vote that was deemed illegal by the Spanish Supreme Court on whether or not to declare independence. This situation was made worse by the fact that in the days leading up to the vote, the Central Government sent in the Guardia Civil or the Civil Guard, the federal police force. They began the process of confiscating ballot boxes and papers from the regional government in an effort to undermine the ability of the people to vote.

Furthermore, the Civil Guard’s action on the day of the vote itself drew massive international condemnation as heavy-handed tactics resulted in injuries and damage to the properties holding the votes. As images of black clad police in riot gear attacking what was a generally peaceful civilian populace were broadcast around the world it became clear that this crisis would only escalate.

The fact that this vote was already declared illegal simply means that the actions of the Civil Guard led to nothing but a PR coup for the pro-secession movement. In the immediate aftermath of the vote the leader of the Catalonian government Carles Puigdemont declared that the regional government had secured a mandate for independent from the vote. With only a 43% turnout and 90% in favour of this vote, it meant that the mandate was not recognised internationally by any European countries.

Call to talks and Independence Vote

The exact statement issued by the Catalonian Government issued on the 10th of October led to some confusion about whether or not the region had actually formally declared independence. The EU and Catalonian government called on both sides to come to talks as resolve the situation diplomatically. A deadline was set by Prime Minister Rajoy for Catalonian to clarify its position or direct rule would be impose. The Spanish Socialists Party, the main opposition party agreed to support Prime Minister Rajoy in impose direct rule upon Catalonia via the use of Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution.

On October 27th while still under the threat of direct rule being imposed, the Catalonian Parliament voted for independence from the Spanish state. Less than an hour later the Spanish Senate voted to impose direct rule upon the region. No European government has thus far supported the move, and the various EU institutions have in fact condemned the move.

The European Dilemma

The European Union is stuck between two competing ideals. First is the is its support for the right to self-determination as recognised in international law and the UN Charter of Human Rights. This especially states that all people will have the right to freely determine their political status and pursue their own economic and cultural development. This has been successfully used as the justification for various regions calling legitimate independence votes. The EU has previously supported these regions (particularly in the Balkans) and therefore should logically be seen to support the movement when it is within its own borders.

The conflict emerges when the EU realises that it needs to support the territorial integrity and rule of law within one of its largest member states. Irrespective of whether one believes the vote is the right course of action or not it cannot be argued that it is in fact illegal. The Spanish Constitution states “The Constitution is based on the indissoluble unity of the Spanish Nation”, essentially meaning that it is impossible for any region to declare independence from the state irrespective of how the vote is conducted.

A further political dimension emerges when one thinks back to the large number of European Union members states that have their own secession movements. Anything that could remotely fan the flames of those movements will be rejected out of hand by their respective governments. Until this issue is resolved the EU will appear incompetent in the next in a long series of crises that have face is the last decade.

Aaron Bowman – Politics Editor