Commentary: Spain's missteps supercharge the Catalonia crisis

If Spanish authorities hoped strong-arm tactics against the referendum independence for Catalonia would nip nationalist feeling in the bud, they will almost certainly be proved badly wrong. Sunday’s footage of violent police action against unarmed demonstrators may prove just the catalyst pro-independence groups wanted, handing Europe yet another crisis when it needed it least.

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Ironically, the government of Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy would have done better to simply ignore the non-binding referendum. It was always likely to produce a vote for independence, if only because those who favored it were far more likely to vote. Broader opinion polls conducted before the weekend ballot never showed majority support for independence, and most estimates suggest it has been ebbing steadily since 2013 to around 40 percent.

The scale of the violence this weekend and the brutality of the national police attempts to stop the ballot – almost 900 injured, according to local authorities – has changed everything. While the referendum was expected to be a polarizing event, the Spanish authorities have now effectively guaranteed it will be seen as a defining moment not just for Catalonia but the country at large. It would be astounding if it did not yield a substantial spike in separatist feeling. In a single day, the Rajoy government may have taken what should have been a manageable issue and escalated it into an existential challenge for Spain.

Catalonia’s governor Carles Puigdemont could always have been hoping to declare independence in the aftermath of the ballot. The widely reported violence, however, delivers a degree of political legitimacy to that fact. That doesn’t mean Spain will necessarily fracture – but it does dramatically increase the chances of that happening in the longer run.

A Spanish break-up will have broad implications for a continent that has spent much of the last decade bouncing from crisis to crisis, but had been having a better year than many U.S. and British pundits had anticipated. French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel both bested far-right challenges in national elections, growth is improving in eurozone economies and the refugee crisis appears to have stabilized.

Events in Spain, however, are a stark reminder that almost every European country remains trapped in a slow-burning political crisis with an ever-growing chance of unusual, unorthodox and outright aggressive nationalist or radical politics eroding the center ground.

In France, the National Front is clearly poised to take advantage of the faltering popularity of Macron, who defeated far-right leader Marine LePen in May. In Germany, Alternative for Germany (AfD) came in a strong third in last week’s election, and is now in parliament for the first time. The festering sore of Brexit continues to raise a host of challenges for both the EU and Britain, while Greece, Italy and Spain continue to struggle economically despite strong broader European growth.

So far, European nations are struggling to work out what their position should be with Spain. For all the public criticism of what is clearly seen as an unnecessarily heavy-handed Spanish clampdown, few European leaders have been willing to criticize Rajoy in public. Behind closed doors, however, the message will almost certainly be that the weekend’s scenes cannot be repeated.

Spain is not the only European country with separatist regions, and that will certainly be little appetite for a wider upswing in the regional nationalism. Just as serious, however, is the way events in Spain reinvigorate the wider European narrative of crisis.

Already, the euro was trading slightly lower on Monday on the news. Russian broadcasters and social media feeds – always keen to jump on anything that undermines the European political mainstream – gave front-page coverage to the news of riot police using rubber bullets and batons to stop the Catalonia vote. Wider international attention can be expected to continue, potentially exacerbating political polarization at every step.

Rajoy’s government is in a tricky situation. It must realize that more heavy-handed use of law enforcement will simply strengthen the separatist cause. Unlike more authoritarian states, Spain does not have the option of bludgeoning dissent into the ground. But nor can it afford to ignore events in Catalonia, for fear the now-heightened momentum behind the pro-independence movement grows still further.

The most obvious solution would be to offer Catalonians more regional autonomy. So far, however, there are few signs of that – and Rajoy’s early statements praising the police response and denying that the referendum has any legal force look set to aggravate tensions rather than ameliorate them.

About the Author

Peter Apps is Reuters global affairs columnist, writing on international affairs, globalization, conflict and other issues. He is founder and executive director of the Project for Study of the 21st Century; PS21, a non-national, non-partisan, non-ideological think tank in London, New York and Washington. Before that, he spent 12 years as a reporter for Reuters covering defense, political risk and emerging markets. Since 2016, he has been a member of the British Army Reserve and the UK Labour Party. @pete_apps

The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.