22nd Mar 2018


Time to de-escalate in Catalonia

  • Catalan and Spanish leaders Carles Puigdemont (l) and Mariano Rajoy (r). Currently, the situation is headed for escalation, with neither side willing to budge. (Photo:

Tensions have reached a boiling point in Catalonia. Following the Catalan Parliament's call for a referendum, to be held on 1 October, the Spanish government has ramped up repression to long-forgotten levels, using its military police to raid several Catalan government buildings and arrest public officials.

Spain's military had not forcefully entered Catalan institutions since the times of the Civil War. The Catalan leader, Carles Puigdemont, has vowed to press on with the vote, and has expressed concern that Spain is de facto suspending Catalan autonomy.

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The Spanish Constitutional Court has so far sided with the prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, and suspended the newly passed Catalan referendum law. Catalan politicians are now facing fines, public office bans and even prison.

Meanwhile, the Spanish military police are on a hunt to find and confiscate the ballot boxes that the Catalan government recently purchased to use in the referendum.

Referendum materials such as pro-independence posters, ballots, and websites have been seized as well. Spain has also repeatedly threatened to withhold federal funding to Catalonia, tightening its financial stranglehold over the region.

The Catalan response has been to send a letter to king Felipe VI, with Rajoy in cc, with "a call for dialogue in order to figure out how [the parties] can come to an agreement so that Catalans may vote in a referendum".

The letter was signed by Puigdemont, mayor of Barcelona Ada Colau, Catalan vice-president Oriol Junqueras, and president of the Catalan parliament Carme Forcadell. Several pro-independence organisations have called for peaceful demonstrations all around Catalonia.

The Spanish crackdown has garnered attention from a number of well-known and influential anti-establishment figures.

In an interview with the Spanish Huffington Post, Yanis Varoufakis, the former Greek minister of finance, declared his support for Catalan self-determination and repeatedly castigated Madrid for blocking all efforts toward sorganising a vote.

Assange and Rajoy

Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, went on a tweet storm on the night of 11 September, in support of Catalan independence, and said that "on 1 October, Europe will witness the birth of a nation of 7.5 million people or a civil war."

Assange in particular has thrown his weight behind more or less every attempt to change the West's geopolitical map, including Scottish independence, Brexit, Catalan independence and (albeit tentatively) the Yes California Independence Campaign, which eyes the secession of California from the United States.

Whether Assange supports these causes coherently, inspired by a deep-seated mistrust of governmental overreach, or throws his weight behind any movement with potential to destabilise the West is as yet unclear.

This type of support for Catalan independence might be more of a curse than a blessing, as it can provide ammunition to those who oppose it. Mariano Rajoy used the looming Brexit negotiations as a mallet with which to pummel his Catalan adversaries.

"Brexit will have dreadful consequences for the British people and for the rest of Europe, despite its being carried out via a set legal process. For this reason, we need to be clear on what the impact would be on Catalonia if it secedes from Spain", he said.

Rajoy is trying to lump together Brexit and Catalan independence in the minds of Europeans. Brexit is disastrously unpopular pretty much everywhere outside of the UK, and if a Europe-wide free association exercise puts Catalan independence and Brexit under the same banner, Catalonia will be worse off for it.

Diplomatic solution

In this sense, Rajoy and Assange et al are turning the independence referendum into an establishment versus anti-establishment showdown, with unpredictable and potentially perilous consequences.

In our view, the Spanish state has repeatedly exercised a serious overreach of its powers. In its apparent non-negotiable refusal even to allow for a dialogue on the referendum, it is giving the Catalan government less and less of an incentive to aim for a compromise.

Currently, the situation is headed for escalation, with neither side willing to budge.

The Spanish government's actions, particularly on Wednesday (20 September), have exacerbated rather than alleviated the situation. In this light, the Catalan proposal for dialogue seems imminently reasonable.

We respectfully, but pressingly, call on Mariano Rajoy to be open to a diplomatic solution and de-escalate the situation.

Jon Roozenbeek is a PhD-student at the Department of Slavonic Studies at the University of Cambridge. He previously worked as a journalist and editor in the Netherlands, and now studies Ukraine's post-conflict media landscape and online social movements.

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