Ian Swanson: European leaders failing to protect democracy

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VIOLENT police intervention at polling stations, a central takeover of power and the prospect of politicians being locked up for their stand are not exactly the hallmarks of democracy.

Yet that is the current picture in the Spanish region of Catalonia following their independence referendum on October 1.

Picture; Getty

Picture; Getty

Catalonia is not Scotland. But our own independence vote in 2014 and the ongoing debate about a possible second referendum make it easy, in the imagination, to transpose events from Barcelona to Edinburgh and realise the horror of what is happening.

What would the reaction here have been if David Cameron’s government had declared Scotland’s referendum illegal, sent in the police to fire rubber bullets at non-violent protesters, then imposed direct rule from Westminster and threatened to arrest senior Scottish political figures?

Following the referendum, which produced a 90 per cent vote for independence on a turnout of 43 per cent, Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont signed a declaration of independence - but immediately said he was suspending it for two months and called for talks with the Spanish government.

Instead, Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy is taking the unprecedented step of invoking Article 155 of the country’s constitution, giving him the power to dissolve the Catalan parliament. He insists all he is doing is upholding the law and he has no alternative.

But Mr Rajoy over-reacted to the ‘illegal’ referendum - and he is over-reacting to the situation now.

Rather than send in the Spanish police to seize ballot boxes and close polling stations, the government could have allowed the referendum to proceed and disregarded its result, as it did with Catalonia’s previous 2014 vote on independence.

And rather than arresting two of the independence leaders for ‘sedition’ - with the clear threat that similar treatment could follow for others - Mr Rajoy could agree to talks on Catalonia’s future.

In the end, these issues cannot be settled without dialogue and refusal to enter talks at this crucial point is wilfully to opt for confrontation.

People in Catalonia, just like people in Scotland, are divided on the matter of independence. One poll found 55 per cent of Catalans do not think the referendum is a valid basis for declaring independence.

But the issue at the moment is the preservation of democracy. And it is extremely disturbing that Spain - which lived under dictatorship up until the death of Francisco Franco in 1975 - should be seeing police violence, central state action against a locally elected parliament and politically-motivated jailings. Mr Puigdemont has called it a de facto coup d’etat.

It is equally alarming that in the face of such developments, leaders of other European countries, including Germany’s Angela Merkel and France’s Emmanuel Macron, have backed Mr Rajoy’s stance.

UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson washed his hands of the issue, saying it was a matter for Spain. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, however, has rightly said the stand-off “can only be resolved through dialogue”.

This is not a little local concern in a faraway country. It is a serious threat to democracy on our doorstep. And it presents a real test for European leaders, which they are currently failing.