The Catalan Crisis: Modern Domino Theory and the European Union

By Christopher Brown

Storm clouds gather over Europe. In the docks of Barcelona sat a ship filled with over 7,000 federal police personnel. In the streets manifested independence-seekers of all ages, carrying with them symbols of their regional and linguistic pride. In regards to the referendum that took place in Catalonia on the October first, two realities are clear: it was ripe with imagery, and it now plays a vital role in international political discourse. Important figures of the international scene, including independence leaders of other European countries, have drawn upon the images of police brutality during Rajoy’s crackdown on the polling sites for the referendum. This has resounding consequences throughout Europe and the world.

Images don’t always tell the full story. Although their trend in social media may have come suddenly, the police presence in Catalonia was far from unanticipated on the day of the referendum. Rather, it was made clear by Mariano Rajoy that the referendum was illegal according to the Spanish constitution, a decision made by the Spanish constitutional court. Participation in the referendum was influenced by the fear of such police actions, in a way which delegitimized the vote’s result. The Spanish unionists, outnumbering their Catalan-nationalist counterparts in both parliament and polling before the referendum, did not show up to the polls on voting day. As such, the result of the referendum, a lofty 90 percent in favor of independence from Spain, (with an abysmal 42 percent participation rate), lacks concrete political relevance. The silent majority, however, only presented itself publicly post-referendum, after the mania of political clashes between the Rajoy government and the regional government led by Carles Puigdemont. It wasn’t until after Puigdemont prepared a press release for October 10th, mentioning the possibility of a declaration of independence, that the unionists felt the need to mobilize. These protests, however, have attracted much less media attention abroad than those of the Catalan nationalists before and during the referendum.

In general, the story of Catalonia is not aptly portrayed by the images presented in the days after the referendum. Police brutality often evokes imagery of an elite barreling down upon minorities and isolated classes to keep them in line. Catalonia, however, could hardly be depicted as an economically struggling region in the context of Spain overall. To the contrary, Catalonia, though still affected by the great recession of the euro, has come out of the crisis soaring, with a GDP rapidly regaining ground. Meanwhile, recovery in the rest of Spain has been much slower, with some regions only at half of Catalonia’s wealth level. Thus, the Catalan people are predominantly a group searching for fiscal liberty, and not equality or protections from economic oppression.

It is imagery, however, which speaks best to a global audience. The repercussions of  the referendum are measured in the international community by their presence throughout the media, notably in places whose political climates see the referendum as an opportunity to gain political capital. Russian state media, for example, pounced on the police brutality of October first with multiple outlets comparing the referendum to the one held in Crimea in 2014, which is also widely regarded by the west as illegitimate. This sort of commentary is mostly aimed at Europe as a whole, and reflects discontent with the violence taking place in European discourse. Coming from Russia, this sort of reaction is taken by Brussels as a low blow to the status of their European project.

At the time of the referendum, there was fear that regionalist movements such as the movement for Scottish independence would flair up yet again. The reaction of First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, though clear, was not necessarily resounding. On twitter, she wrote, “Increasingly concerned by images from #Catalonia. Regardless of views on independence, we should all condemn the scenes being witnessed”. Her tweet makes it clear that some leaders are still biding their time with their treatment of the referendum’s result. Such discourse also hurts the image of the European Union, which would need to individually consider regions declaring independence as countries for years, and potentially decades before welcoming them into the EU.