Leader: Democracy on trial in Catalan crisis

Catalan protesters demonstrate in Barcelona. Picture: Sean Gallup/Getty
Catalan protesters demonstrate in Barcelona. Picture: Sean Gallup/Getty
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At the height of the Scottish referendum campaign the atmosphere was febrile. Families were split over the Yes/No question; friends stopped speaking to each other; and social media became a place where nuanced arguments were shouted down in the most base terms. In short, many people stopped listening to each other and those stuck in the middle – struggling to make up their minds – found few answers in the maelstrom.

Looking back, through the lens of the current Catalonia independence debate, Scotland’s process seems a model of democracy.

Imagine for a moment that David Cameron had refused to sanction a referendum. Or that the Metropolitan Police were sent across the border to fire rubber bullets at protesters and push pensioners down the stairs. Or pro-independence campaigners were arrested for sedition. And then that Westminster imposed direct rule on Scotland, effectively usurping the Scottish Government.

One can only think what that would have done to support for independence. Or for the long-term health of relations within the UK.

Scotland and Catalonia are very different, and one should be careful not to compare the situations directly. But it is clear that the Spanish government has mishandled the situation for several years.

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy is sticking to his own consistent logic: nothing can happen outside the constitution. Legally he is on solid ground. But this isn’t just about law. It’s about politics, identity, community, and increasingly about emotion and fairness.

Rajoy’s every move, following the disputed independence referendum, looks likely to inflame the process, rather than calm it.

Predictably, large crowds gathered in Barcelona yesterday to protest against direct rule from Madrid. There were slogans about political prisoners following the arrests, and growing anger over the actions of the police.

The Catalan leader, Carles Puigdemont, has threatened to press ahead with a declaration of independence.

And a deepening sense of division is developing. Many of the 7.5 million people in Catalonia reject independence and Spain’s actions have only served to create a wider gulf between Yes and No supporters.

There is also growing anger towards the EU, which many Catalans say has fallen silent on an important issue. Many videos and placards are now being made and written in English in an attempt to internationalise the dispute and yesterday protesters waved slogans at cameras pointedly saying “Help Catalonia”.

It seems likely that this dispute will escalate. Western democracy is on trial here and it is time for cool heads on all sides and for dialogue. And surely there is a role for the EU.

Only the people of Catalonia can decide the path for their future. But that must be done through a fair and democratic process, not as a protest against a cack-handed Spanish government.