Spain's Flawed Response to the Catalonian Referendum

How Its Overreaction Legitimized the Call for Independence

Spanish Civil Guard officers removing demonstrators outside a polling station in Barcelona, Spain, October 2017. Susana Vera / REUTERS

Madrid responded to this weekend’s referendum on Catalan independence by sending in thousands of police, who beat up voters and shot nonviolent activists with rubber bullets. It is difficult to picture a more counterproductive course of action. According to the polls, independence was not heavily favored leading up to the referendum and most Catalans already considered the vote illegitimate. The Spanish government could have stuck to a simple playbook: allow the referendum to proceed and affirm the results if it failed and declare them null if it succeeded. This is the example set by Canada in 1995, the United Kingdom in 2014, and Iraq earlier this month. If the Spanish government had downplayed the vote, the world would have quickly forgotten about it. Instead, they have grabbed headlines by breaking the key international norm of tolerating peaceful demonstrations and supporting democratic representation.

A good-faith effort to move toward a federalist system may be one way to take off the pressure.

Indeed, the referendum on October 1 saw the use of repressive tactics normally seen only in authoritarian states. The government moved thousands of police into the region to physically prevent Catalans from voting. Catalan social media is now filled with videos of police beating elderly men, throwing people down stairs, hitting them in the face and neck, dragging elderly women through the streets, and striking citizens with truncheons. Rubber bullets are banned in Catalonia, yet police have been firing them at voters and protestors at close range, with over 900 wounded. As if such imagery is not stark enough, there is even footage of police confiscating ballot boxes from polling stations, scoffing at the universal symbol of democracy.

And all of that is a gift to the independence movement. Any separatist group that hopes to set up a recognized sovereign state has to struggle with international norms. The most important is the norm of territorial integrity, which implies fixed borders and nonintervention in other states’ affairs. There is a strong and understandable preference for

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