Why the Catalan referendum is the latest threat to Europe

Juliette Bretan 26 September 2017

The 2015 regional election in Catalonia saw pro-independence parties win a slim parliamentary majority. Two years later, the Catalan parliament passed a law authorizing a vote on its self-determination. Provided a simple majority supports independence in its legally binding referendum on October 1st, Catalonia will become an independent republic. Or so the story goes.

The following morning, the Spanish Constitutional court unanimously suspended the referendum, reminding both Spanish and Catalan society of their “duty” to uphold this suspension. Throughout the past two weeks, the Spanish police has been deployed to confiscate referendum propaganda, the chief prosecutor has drawn up criminal charges against members of the Catalan government, some of whom were arrested on Thursday, and the Spanish government has seized control of Catalan finances, in order to prevent “public money” from being used “to finance an illegal vote”.

In a statement following the suspension, the Scottish cabinet made reference to the Edinburgh Agreement, an example of “two governments” coming together “to agree a process to allow the people to decide”. Yet is this comparison, often made Catalan secessionists, a valid one? The key difference lies in the Spanish constitution. As Daniel Cetrà tells the Scotsman, the referendum called in Catalonia clashes with a constitution “based on the indissoluble unity of the Spanish Nation”. This, he adds, is a model which contrasts with the UK, “a nation of nations”. A referendum leading to the breakup of Spain would require a major constitutional amendment involving the nation as a whole, making the one to be held in October illegal.

As laid out by over 950 activists and writers in a letter last week, this scenario is “the opposite of what it claims to be”. Rather than an exercise in freedom of speech, it is an “antidemocratic fraud”: a law passed without parliamentary scrutiny, leading to a vote with no guarantees whatsoever and designed “to ensure unilateral independence”. The same message was echoed by over 200 university professors, who have urged the Spanish government to “defend the rule of law”. “A civilized society in 21st-century Europe”, they added, “can only be based on respect towards the laws we have given each other democratically, starting with the 1978 Constitution”.

George Orwell famously defined nationalism as “identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognising no other duty than that of advancing its interests”. This referendum, as described by Libération, is nothing but the latest version of “the most bigoted nationalism”, with its “mantras”, its “us versus them mentality” and its “feeling of cultural supremacy”. Subverting a constitution to benefit a party or a government sets a very dangerous precedent in the EU, and it is up to all of us to stop it. It is the future of Europe which is at stake.