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Spain’s Dirty Laundry

Catalonia ballots from Oct. 1, 2017
Ballots for the Oct. 1 referendum in Catalonia. Photo courtesy HazteOir.org on Flickr.

Dirty clothes taught me everything I need to know about the independent spirit of the people of Catalonia.

It was 10 years ago that my elder daughter took an extended tour of Europe while on spring break in her semester abroad. We joined her in Barcelona for a family vacation midway through her tour. Her wardrobe needed a little maintenance by that point, so we sought out a local laundry.

Ali, our younger daughter, used her high-school Spanish to ask the proprietress if she spoke English. She didn’t. Knowing that my wife and I speak some French and that the border was nearby, Ali asked the woman if she spoke any other foreign languages.

“Spanish,” she replied.

To millions of people in Barcelona and the surrounding region, Spanish – or Castilian, as it is sometimes called (mainly by foreigners) to distinguish it from the local Catalan – is indeed a foreign language. The Catalan culture is more like business-oriented northern Europe than elsewhere in Spain; for example, Catalonia is not strongly attached to the Spanish custom of the siesta, favoring a workday more similar to the rest of Europe. For centuries it has seen itself as a region apart, and it chafed particularly under the repressive rule of the right-wing Franco regime from 1939 to 1975. Catalonia received considerable autonomy once democracy was restored after Franco’s death.

Secessionist feelings still simmered, however, although unlike in the nearby Basque region it never flared into violence and terrorism. A narrow majority of Catalans would likely have been content to remain under the Spanish umbrella if given the chance to vote freely on the matter.

They weren’t given the chance, which is a great pity.

On Sunday, Catalonia attempted to hold a referendum on independence from Spain. Fewer than half of the region’s registered voters cast a ballot, but of those who did, the response was overwhelmingly in favor of independence. Those votes, however, did not include ballots confiscated by Spanish police or the votes that would have been cast if Catalan voters had not found themselves under attack by the national authorities. The Guardian reported that at least 844 people were injured in the raids, along with 33 police officers.

With the backing of the country’s constitutional court, Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy declared the vote illegal and said that Catalonia’s people had been tricked into participating. He further praised the police – who witnesses say charged the crowds with truncheons and fired rubber bullets – for acting with “firmness and serenity.” “Today, democracy has prevailed because we have obeyed the constitution,” Rajoy said.

Opponents of the referendum mainly boycotted it, which many observers suggest skewed the results in favor of independence. And the referendum’s results could not be independently verified, not least because Spain has insisted the vote was not legal. Had Madrid not clashed with Catalan regional authorities, both before and during the vote, a clearer result might have been possible. As it is, the repression of the vote evidently gave pro-independence leaders a renewed commitment to their cause, as well as the sympathy of many non-Spaniards. Carles Puigdemont, the leader of the secessionist movement, called for international mediation in the aftermath of the Spanish government’s aggressive response.

Madrid’s reaction was what we would have expected from Beijing if the citizens of Hong Kong were to try to vote on independence from China. But China makes no pretense of being a democracy where the government is accountable to its people; in China, the people are accountable to the government, the government is accountable to the Communist Party, and the party is accountable only to itself.

In addition to China, the Rajoy government’s ham-handed response calls to mind the Franco regime, which is a great tragedy for political conservatism in modern Spain. Now it will be much harder to reach a long-term accommodation that could meet the essential needs of both sides.

There are many models that could have worked to spare Spain its current crisis. From Greenland to the Falkland Islands, there are culturally and geographically distinct regions that exist under the nominal sovereignty of their central governments (in Copenhagen and London respectively), but whose people exercise extensive local autonomy except in military and foreign affairs. Citizens of Greenland were part of the European Union until 1985, when they voted to withdraw. Residents of the Falklands and other British overseas territories, such as Bermuda and the Turks and Caicos, have British citizenship and consequently are also members of the EU (at least until Brexit is completed).

When confronted by Scottish demands for an independence referendum, London authorized one in 2014 – and came out on top when 55 percent of participating Scots voted to remain in the United Kingdom. More than anything else, this peaceful persuasion could have been the alternate course for Rajoy’s government in Madrid. Now that the U.K. has voted to leave the EU, the Scottish National Party is pressing for a second independence referendum. London has not acceded, but the possibility of violence to block any such plebiscite is vanishingly small.

There is also the model of the former Czechoslovakia. At the end of World War I, representatives agreed to create a common state representing both Czechs and Slovaks. This shotgun marriage of ethnic groups weathered World War II and the Cold War, but the country decided to break up in 1993. Though many citizens lamented the decision at the time, the separation occurred legally and peacefully. The achievement was all the more striking in contrast to the violent breakups of other former communist countries, such as Yugoslavia. Both the Czech Republic and Slovakia now coexist peacefully within the EU.

Yet the EU itself is unsympathetic to the Catalan drive for self-determination. The union is, above all, about suppressing national identity and local control in order to elevate the power of a central government in Brussels. The similarities to Beijing are not small, and the mealymouthed responses of governments headed by EU advocates like German Chancellor Angela Merkel to the Spanish repression are telling. Even more telling, perhaps, is that many EU officials chose not to react at all.

Our own government is not covering itself in glory on this issue, either. Washington has been virtually silent about the events in Spain over the weekend, and it has fully supported Iraqi efforts to suppress first the vote for, and now the resulting movement toward, independence in the country’s long-suppressed Kurdish region. If anyone has earned Washington’s loyalty in that part of the world by now, it should be the Kurds, who fought Saddam Hussein, resisted Iranian subversion of their country’s post-Saddam government and, at one point, served as the only bulwark against the so-called Islamic State.

A little intellectual clarity would go a long way here. For instance: It is never a bad thing to let people peacefully express their preferences at a ballot box. What happens after they express those preferences is another matter. Our own Civil War did not start because somebody voted to secede; it started when secessionists fired their cannons at Fort Sumter. Until those cannons fired, President Abraham Lincoln held out hope that war could be averted and that America’s gaps could be peacefully bridged.

Spanish opponents of Catalan independence – and there are many inside and outside the region – ask how Americans would react if California officials scheduled a vote on secession. Leaving aside the obvious room for a sarcastic “Godspeed!” from some of us, I don’t think most Americans could imagine removing and jailing state officials, seizing ballots, occupying schools and violently confronting people who merely wanted to vote. We might not recognize the results as having any legal effect, but we would view voting itself as merely an act of free political speech. We Americans should give thanks for the First Amendment, and remember this the next time someone rails against Citizens United.

The world is full of examples about how to bridge gaps like the one between Barcelona and Madrid. It’s too bad there are so few leaders who are prepared to hold the Rajoy government accountable for its dirty laundry.

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