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Barcelona Attack: Will it Have a Larger Impact on the Spanish and European Political Climates?

August 24, 2017
Rajoy Puigdemont 2

Photo credit: Andreu Dalmau (EFE)

Although the immediate aftermath of the August 17 terrorist attacks in and near Barcelona has witnessed an outpour of displays of unity in support of the victims, it is not altogether clear how long that climate of unity will last. It is easily predictable that many among the growing number of Europe’s populist right-wing politicians will loudly voice their concern about the presence of Muslim communities across the continent and about the alleged incapacity of the EU to deal with the influx of foreigners. For one, Nigel Farage (the euroskeptic former leader of UKIP who spearheaded the Brexit campaign) has already come out with accusations that EU leaders are endangering their citizens and are partly responsible for the attacks. Naturally, it is in these times of crisis that the resilience of European institutions is most severely tested, but at least so far the Union has withstood the majority of attacks against its core principles of integration and inclusiveness, as the post-Brexit electoral defeats of the far-right in France (which has experienced the largest numbers of casualties during the recent wave of terrorism) and elsewhere shows. Nevertheless, it is hard to tell whether the increasing prevalence of the terrorist threat will ultimately take its toll in the continent, and thwart features as fundamental to European integration as the freedom of movement.

Similarly, the Barcelona attack is likely to generate further backlash against the admission of refugees into the EU, although in the coming days it will be important to keep in mind that the attackers, while of Moroccan descent, had been long settled in Spain and were seemingly well integrated into Spanish society. Therefore, this latest attack bears little relationship with the refugee crisis. But despite the presence of similar facts surrounding prior acts of terrorism in Europe, refugees remain a frequent target of exclusionary rhetoric. This summer, for example, the EU was forced to take legal action against three of its member states (the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland) based on their refusal to harbor asylum seekers as required by a 2015 agreement. The leaders of these nations have cited security concerns in refusing to comply with their allocation quota. And such concerns (whether real or invoked for purely opportunistic reasons) are likely to increase now that Spain, a third principal avenue (besides Greece and Italy) of North African immigration into Europe and a country usually seen as among the most efficient in thwarting terrorist plots, has been unable to prevent an attack in one of its main cities.

Notably, one country that has not experienced the all-too-common surge of far-right rhetoric into the political mainstream has been precisely Spain, and it does not seem likely that such rhetoric will find its way in now that the country is beginning to see the end of the economic crisis that hit it so hard in 2008. But Spanish politics are facing conflicts of their own, and these conflicts have much to do with Barcelona. Indeed, Barcelona is the capital city of Catalonia, a region currently undergoing a debate on secessionism that has brought it to a point of seemingly unsolvable crisis with the Spanish government. In a rare show of unity, the leaders of the national and regional governments (Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and President Carles Puigdemont, respectively) stood together, along with King Felipe VI, in commemoration of the victims of the attack. Moreover, both leaders have for the most part refrained from explicitly making use of the attacks for political purposes.

The truce, however, is not likely to last. Newspapers and some political figures are already using the tragedy to attack the opposing side. Thus, for example, the main national newspaper, El País, published an editorial arguing that the attacks highlight the misplaced priorities of the Catalan government, which according to the piece should focus on the needs and security of its citizens instead of concentrating exclusively on the “chimera” of independence. Conversely, others have claimed that the attacks would not have happened in an independent Catalonia, and that the response of the local authorities demonstrates the capacity of the region to function as a separate state. And all this is taking place as Catalonia gets ready for an informal referendum on secession that the Spanish government considers illegal. Whether the terrorist incident will have an impact on secessionist sympathies is yet to be seen, but at least for the time being, it is essential that all sides maintain an attitude of respect regarding the events in Barcelona and refrain from unduly using the tragedy to generate discord or gain a political advantage.


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