Spanish officials have reacted only with threats. If the referendum is held, the government in Madrid has already threatened to retaliate by suspending the autonomy that Catalonia enjoys. The fact that 80 percent of the citizens of Catalonia, as well as a majority of the members of the Catalan Parliament, have declared their approval of the referendum apparently means nothing to Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and the Spanish political establishment. They live in democratic denial.
On 18 separate occasions, the Spanish legislature has refused to allow a referendum or other moves that might accommodate Catalan demands. Consider how differently London reacted to Scots’ desires for a referendum of their own. The British and Scottish governments talked out their differences, and in 2012 they finally reached the Edinburgh Agreement, which set out the conditions according to which a referendum would take place. No confrontations were needed. The vote took place, and the pro-union side won the day thanks to the strength of its arguments (as well as the fear of uncertainty).
Over the past five years, by contrast, Madrid has reacted to Catalonia’s entreaties with arrests, threats and intimidation. We were aware of Spain’s flaws, of course, but it was still possible to believe that the country was moving toward Western European democratic standards. That assumption is now very much in doubt.
Spain’s responses to the referendum campaign have shown that its judiciary and police apparatus are still directly controlled by the government and bend to its will if needed. Instead of seeking compromise as London did with Scotland, Madrid has abandoned any attempt to persuade the Catalans to remain Spanish. On the contrary, Madrid is searching for ways to force the Catalan people to remain in Spain — if need be, against their will.
Elpidio Silva, a former Spanish judge testifying to the Catalan Parliament a few weeks ago, put it in terms that many Catalans would agree with: “Spain is behaving like an authoritarian regime.”
Catalan discontent has much to do with the recent scandal dubbed “Operation Catalonia.” One year ago, journalists revealed that the Spanish police were conducting a covert operation to smear Catalan pro-independence politicians. Their newspaper published the text and audio of a conversation in which Jorge Fernández Díaz, who served as Spain’s interior minister between 2011 and 2016, discussed a dirty-tricks campaign to discredit the referendum movement. He spoke of manipulating prosecutors, collecting false information about Catalan leaders, and generally using the Spanish police and the judiciary system to undermine the Catalan independence process — all this in tacit cooperation with Madrid-based newspapers.
Operation Catalonia succeeded in spreading disinformation to the press and the public. In 2014, the newspaper El Mundo accused Xavier Trias, the pro-independence mayor of Barcelona, of having a bank account in Switzerland. Just a few days later, the bank in question declared that the information was false, but the story still poisoned the political climate enough that Trias’s opponent was able to win the mayoral election a few months later in May 2015 with the help of this bit of fake news. In time since then, Spain’s public prosecutors have done nothing to punish the people who participated in this campaign against elected politicians. There is a growing conviction in Barcelona that Spain looks less like a democracy than a state still mired in the legacy of Franco-style authoritarianism.
In the coming weeks and months, Spain must decide if it wants to act like a mature and liberal European state or one that continues to hold the sacred unity of the state higher than the rule of law and democracy.
The European Union and the world cannot ignore these failures of the rule of law in Spain. Like Scotland, Catalonia is a pro-European nation. The Catalan referendum offers an opportunity for Europe to make clear to the world that, in the 21st century, votes are more important than old borders created through wars or royal marriages.