An independence referendum in Catalonia came under intense media scrutiny earlier this week, in part due to the Spanish government’s violent mishandling of the situation.
“Spain is in crisis, and its prime minister appears to be in denial,” said the Guardian in an editorial. “The run-up to Sunday’s referendum on independence for Catalonia made it clear that the country was in trouble. But neither those arranging it nor those rejecting it can fully have anticipated the scenes at polling stations: police in riot gear beating peaceful protesters with batons, dragging voters out by the hair or throwing them down stairs, firing rubber bullets to disperse crowds – even striking at Catalan firefighters and jostling with Catalan police,” the paper said.
Observing that the wider result of the violence was the shock expressed well beyond Catalonia and Spain, the paper said: “The outcome is almost certain to be that some of the Catalans indifferent or opposed to secession – until now, at least, the majority – are pushed into the arms of the cause. Who wants to be ruled by a state like this, many are asking. Yet Mariano Rajoy’s response, in his address to the nation, was simple: there was no referendum and no problem – police acted with ‘firmness and serenity’. The responsibility for all that had happened lay with the Catalonian government. Spain is paying for his determination to stop the illegal vote by the bluntest means and at all costs. His latest remarks are only likely to inflame matters.”
At the same time, the paper said, if Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont “was right to say that the Spanish state had “lost much more than what it had already lost”, his assertion that Catalonia had won is at best half true: most Catalans wished both for a referendum and to remain in a united country’.
The Financial Times, however, disagreed on the basis of the referendum and said: “Catalonia’s referendum lacks legal validity and political legitimacy. In their response to the gathering storm, Mariano Rajoy, Spain’s prime minister, and his ruling Popular party have been cack-handed at best. They have unnecessarily alienated many Catalans and been sluggish and unimaginative. After the crisis erupted in 2010, when Spain’s constitutional court struck down parts of a new statute of autonomy for Catalonia, Madrid let several opportunities for talks go to waste. However, none of this makes the Spanish state the tyrannical ogre that inhabits the fantasies of Catalan separatists.”
Noting that there was a world of difference between the abuses committed against Catalonia under Francisco Franco, the dictator who died in 1975, and the extensive self-government and individual freedom that the region and its people have enjoyed for the past four decades, it said: “Catalan nationalists purport to speak in the name of the whole people. It is a baseless claim. In truth, the separatists are driving forward a radical agenda that deeply divides Catalonian society… At some stage, a fresh dialogue must start between Madrid and the Catalan authorities. Yet it must be on the basis of the rule of law.”
In an impassioned plea in the New York Times, Javier Solana, the former secretary general of Nato and a former head of foreign policy for the European Union, said: “The referendum on independence in Catalonia, Spain, is about more than a people’s wish for self-government. It threatens the very democracy and rule of law that Spain insisted upon after the decades-long dictatorship of General Francisco Franco came to an end in 1975... Throughout my life, I have witnessed the fragmentation of many countries, and I cannot conceive of that happening in the European Union of today. I hope that dialogue will prevail and that solving this crisis will be an opportunity to improve our democratic system and strengthen our institutions.”
By contrast, Carles Puigdemont, the current president of Catalonia, wrote in Washington Post: “Our commitment to the right of self-determination and to the will of the Catalan people to decide its own future remains unshaken. The repression of the Spanish government will not be able to change that… This is the moment of the people of Catalonia, but we are not alone in this fight. We call on democrats around the world to give support to this long struggle between freedom and authoritarianism.”