Spanish National Police block people trying to reach a polling station in Barcelona, Spain, on Oct. 1. Catalan leaders accused Spanish police of brutality and repression. AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)

The hypocrisy of the European Union on the Catalan referendum

After days of political upheaval following the Oct. 1 referendum on independence from Spain, the president of Catalunya, Carles Puigdemont, spoke in the Catalan parliament this week.

The radical parties in parliament had been pushing for an immediate unilateral declaration of independence.

But with corporations beginning to threaten they’d leave, it made sense for Puigdemont to recount all the reasons why Catalunya is entitled to consider separation, but then announce that the independence declaration would be put on hold for “several weeks” until a mediator is found.

Catalan regional President Carles Puigdemont signs an independence declaration after a parliamentary session in Barcelona on Oct. 10. Puigdemont says he has a mandate to declare independence but is waiting a few weeks in order to facilitate a dialogue. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)

Mediation is widely supported in Barcelona, the capital of Catalunya, by the leading newspaper, the bar association, the economists’ association, the chambers of commerce and a long list of civic leaders.

But the Spanish government has continued to repeat that there is no dialogue with law-breakers and that the referendum was illegal.

It was indeed illegal, but how the “illegal” label was generated would likely be mocked by international constitutional law experts.

Unfortunately, only Barcelona’s news outlets seem to know the background. They have tried to explain that in 2006 a referendum was actually held to approve the basic law governing Madrid-Barcelona relations (the “Estatut.”)

If it had been upheld, this long-awaited compromise law would have put an end to the independence movement. What the vast majority of Catalan people wanted (and probably would still want, if it were in the cards) was federalism, as it exists in Canada, Germany and other countries.

Court stacked with centralists

But the Constitutional Court, which had been carefully packed with strong centralists (in Spain judges belong to political parties and their affiliation is publicly known), unilaterally gutted the “Estatut” in 2010. When the same Constitutional Court declares the Barcelona government to be “anti-democratic” in 2017, one can appreciate why the labels “anti-democratic” and “illegal” have little purchase. Madrid unilaterally, and conveniently, deemed it so.

Prior to the Oct. 1 vote, Madrid sent tens of thousands of heavily armed national police, including the paramilitary Guardia Civil, to keep people from voting.

Clearly the thousands of riot police, who destroyed polling stations, beat up almost 900 voters, made off with ballots and ballot boxes and shot rubber bullets into crowds, had not only permission but encouragement from on high. They were unsuccessful, as it turned out, since more than two million people voted.

On Oct. 3, just after a massive general strike was held throughout Catalunya to protest the police actions, Spain’s King Felipe went on national TV. Instead of easing tensions, Felipe proceeded to use his position as sovereign to lambaste the government of Catalunya.

Catalan regional police officers stand between protesters and national police headquarters during a one-day strike in Barcelona on Oct. 3 to protest alleged brutality by police during the referendum. (AP Photo/Santi Palacios)

If Felipe had said “a few bad apples” among police had become overzealous, as would have happened in many democracies, that might have calmed things down. But the massive police violence went totally unmentioned, as if Felipe did not have a television set in his palace.

So where are things now?

Barcelona is still hoping for mediation, and has not gone through with independence declarations despite pressure from the radical left-separatist party CUP. Madrid has not yet sent in the tanks; but it has refused to pull the national police and paramilitary forces out of Catalunya.

And the government continues to refuse to negotiate at all, either directly or through international mediators, including “The Elders,” the group founded by Nelson Mandela that has made a sensible call for dialogue and would no doubt be available to mediate.

In all of this, the people of Catalunya keep asking: Where is the European Union? What is the point of having a European Parliament and a European Commission if they are AWOL during the worst political crisis in recent European history?

As a Barcelona-raised scholar of urban law and governance, I can attest that being European is important to all Catalans.

Those who favour independence flood the streets every Sept. 11 (the Catalan national day), waving both Catalan independence flags and EU flags. But those who are against independence also wave the EU flag. During the huge anti-independence demonstration held Oct. 8 in Barcelona, people carried Spanish flags, EU flags and the official pre-independence flag of Catalunya, often with the three sewn together.

Demonstrators carrying flags march to protest the Catalan government’s push for secession from the rest of Spain in downtown Barcelona, Spain, on Oct. 8. AP Photo/Francisco Seco)

The EU flag is just about the only thing both sides have in common. Even the famed Futbol Club Barcelona, usually the object of widespread and non-partisan adoration in Catalonia, took sides, not quite pro-independence but in favour of the referendum.

During the afternoon of Oct. 1, with European televisions and smartphone screens rife with photos of brazen police violence, a rumour circulated on social media about Angela Merkel phoning the Madrid Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, to tell him to call off the dogs – but it was only a rumour.

On referendum day, Oct. 1, one of the thousands of local crowds hoping to vote carried a large banner saying “Europe, help us” in English. That appeal, which in prior weeks was imbued with hope, became a cry of desperation.

My sister Teresa, who was able to vote without violence (she lives in a very small town, one forgotten by the national police), told me that her fellow townspeople, who know of her Canadian connections, were asking, only half jokingly, whether Catalunya might become a province of Canada, since the EU clearly didn’t care about it.

What’s transpired in Spain over the past two weeks raises serious questions about why the West views it as acceptable that a European prime minister has completely disregarded every European Union norm about civility, dialogue, pluralism, police oversight and basic human rights.

When Venezuela stacks the constitutional court to ensure that democracy movements are labelled illegal, the EU cries foul. When the same thing happens in Madrid? Silence.

If Madrid wanted to secede from the EU economy, like Great Britain, an uproar would no doubt ensue. But Madrid has managed to secede from the legal, political and ethical norms and laws that European leaders insist countries like Russia, Turkey and Venezuela adhere to.

And nobody seems to care.