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Catalonia. The sad Madrid-Barcelona confrontation. After violence and pseudo-referendum dialogue is the only option

The outcome of October 1st in Catalonia is not what regional authorities had expected: 90% of Catalans backed independence on 42% of voters at polling stations (those not presided by the Guardia Civil), over 800 were injured. But for the Supreme Court and the central Government the referendum proclaimed by the Generalitat is illegal. Thus independence remains a mirage, while institutional confrontations have reached a boiling point. After forceful actions on both sides, the only option is political dialogue, in full respect of the Constitution

The day after the proclaimed referendum for the independence of Catalonia from Spain several people were left injured, while the Country faced a wounded democracy, in the literal sense of the term. This time Madrid and Barcelona were involved in a new, landlocked, sad lose-lose confrontation, while too many actors without a script crowded the political scenario – at regional, national and European level alike.

Numbers and words. At a time of political divisions spreading throughout Europe, of strengthened Brexit-claims and nationalisms coupled by identity and social clashes (of which the recent terrorist attacks are the most tragic manifestation), the path undertaken by the Generalitat to break away from the rest of Spain is an uphill road with few chances of success. Yet Catalan President Carles Puigdemont, backed by remarkable electoral support (albeit not the majority), guided the region one step beyond legality: “The Spanish State wrote a shameful page of its history in Catalonia”, he said, referring to acts of violence by the Guardia Civil, deployed by the central government in polling stations to prevent the popular vote. Over 800 casualties on October 1st leave no room for imagination: indeed, Madrid resorted to violence. But maybe nobody would have been hurt if Puigdemont had withdrawn the referendum when Spain’s Supreme Court had proclaimed it null. Puigdemont and his entourage crossed the legal line and that of democracy. Thus Premier Mariano Rajoy felt it was his duty to use force to ensure the respect of the rule of the law and democracy.

Mariano or Franco? After objectively sad chronicles on Barcelona, Girona, Lleida and Tarragona, Mariano Rajoy continues acting the tough guy: “I can tell you with full clarity that today there was no independence referendum”, he said. “Our  rule of law – he went on – keeps its strength and reality, and restricts those who wish to subvert the state of law, and acts with all the legal resources, vis a vis all provocations, and does it with efficacy and in a serene way. Today we have seen an episode of a show.” Then, he finally called upon “all political forces to engage in dialogue.”  Gerard Piquè, popular defender in Barcelona’s football team, after the closed-door match against Las Palmas, declared: “In the Franco era we couldn’t even vote. I am proud to be Catalan.” But Piquè, perhaps carried away by his young age, doesn’t remember – or maybe doesn’t know – who Franco was; the methods adopted by his regime against a secessionist region would have been very different.

Three aspects. Now three facts are occurring in Barcelona. The first: the local government, the independence parties and many media outlets are flaunting the results of the half-referendum: 2.2 million votes, 90% of whom support secession, 42% of those entitled to vote went to the polls. Many citizens who intended to vote were denied access to polling stations by the Spain’s Guardia Civil (after the Mossos d’Esquadra, the regional police, mutinied and closed themselves in the barracks). Second: a national strike was proclaimed for October 3rd as a sign of protest against the national government’s “suppression” of “the freedom and self-determination of the Catalan people.” Third: once the results of the referendum are proclaimed (whether legal or not), if it were to honour the promises made, the Catalan Parliament would have to make a unilateral declaration of independence. Even though, on the aftermath of the referendum, there are signs of second thoughts, coupled by softened stances and responsible statements.

Many questions. Hence the great absentee, i.e. dialogue, is being invoked. That very dialogue that was supposed to bring the central and political institutions to politically define – without forceful actions – Barcelona’s legitimate requests and the equally legitimate objections of Madrid on the decision of a State’s region – however strong its cultural and language identity, greater than other regions in the Country – to separate from the rest of the Country.

Thus on the wake of this episode, in the Iberian peninsula, as in the rest of Europe, the questions are increasing.

To what extent is it democratic to claim independence (which extends beyond the request for greater political, social or fiscal autonomy)? Can democracy be defended by using truncheons and by shutting down polling stations? Must an identity difference necessarily lead up to political and institutional independence? To what extent does a Constitution bear value nowadays? What would happen if Catalonia truly managed to break away from Spain? Would it grow into a richer and safer island of happiness?

What if the Flanders and Lapland… Comments and stands in support of Rajoy are spreading throughout Europe (Macron and Merkel for example) as well as those pro Puigdemont (Mélenchon, Salvini, Farage). But how would any premier or head of State react if a region in his Country opted for a divorce? What if the Flanders or Transylvania, Corsica or Silesia, Calabria or Lapland claimed the right to their own government, to an independent Parliament, a Constitution, mobilized an army, minted coinage and erected borders around neighbouring regions and States? Many questions arise also in this case, they cross the Old Continent (a melting pot of cultural, linguistic, economic diversity and of different identities, which in the past became causes of many conflicts) and land in Brussels. In these cases we remember about the existence of the European Union: it is expected that the EU will straighten out the situation after it had become entangled at local level. Moreover, the position of the EU can only be a determined and “twofold” solution: on the one side by supporting national States that represent the Union’s very backbone; on the other by calling for political dialogue between the parties involved: the only way out of the deadlocked path undertaken by Barcelona and Madrid.

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