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Catalonia: The Latest Developments

November 16, 2017

Puigdemont Brussels

Some important developments have taken place since our most recent blog post on the situation surrounding the Catalan secession movement. On October 26, the crisis reached a seeming watershed moment when, after the failure of last-minute informal negotiations, the Catalan Parliament unilaterally declared independence. Almost immediately afterwards, the Spanish Senate approved the application of Article 155 of the Constitution, which allows the central government to take administrative control over a region whose leaders are acting outside of the constitutional boundaries. Within hours, the Executive led by Mariano Rajoy had announced the particular measures to be implemented: the sacking of the regional government, including its President Carles Puigdemont, the dissolution of the Catalan Parliament, the intervention of the regional police, and the scheduling of snap elections for December 21. These measures came as somewhat of a surprise for Spaniards, in part because they deviated from initial speculations that the central government would take interim control of the region for a longer period, of around six months. But most importantly, and that was perhaps at the core of the government’s calculation, the measures came as a surprise for the secessionist leadership. Suddenly, Puigdemont and his allies were forced to quickly decide whether they would participate in the elections (thus implicitly acknowledging Spanish sovereignty and the application of Article 155) or boycott them as an external imposition (which would deprive secessionists of any chance of retaining power). The independentist coalition ultimately opted for the former route, and announced that it would run for the elections. Thus, the central government seemingly achieved an important victory, forcing the Catalan leadership to acknowledge the Spanish legal system while avoiding the impression of a Madrid-driven suppression of regional autonomy. The expected narrative of “external occupation” had been preemptively invalidated, and, with a swift stroke, Rajoy had re-appropriated the discourse of “democracy” by calling Catalans to the polls, this time in a legal manner. The (now deposed) Catalan government had little choice but to comply, or else risk being labeled as undemocratic.

That, however, was not the end of the drama. In another unexpected turn of events, Puigdemont decided to “flee” to Brussels (although he was of course perfectly free to travel there) in order to seek international support for his cause and form a sort of “government in exile” along with some of his ex-ministers (consellers). Others, including the deposed vice-president, Oriol Junqueras, stayed behind to manage the situation from the ground. Under these conditions, however, it became immediately evident that the newly-proclaimed Catalan Republic was nowhere in existence. On the contrary, the reaction from the Spanish state institutions against the independence declaration was quick and forceful: central government ministries took over the direction of the Catalan administration in order to ensure a smooth continuation of public services in Catalonia, at the same time as the justice system began investigating possible criminal liabilities among secessionist leaders. Criminal complaints have been brought by the public prosecutor against the members of the Catalan government and the parliamentary leadership, under charges of rebellion, sedition, and misuse of public funds. With Puigdemont and part of his cabinet in Belgium and refusing to appear before court, the remaining members were brought to declare and face charges before either the Supreme Tribunal or the National High Court (depending on who held jurisdiction over the particular defendant). In all cases but one, the prosecution requested pre-trial detention as a precautionary measure based on the possibility of flight and the risk of continued criminal activity; and while the High Court granted the request, sending among others deposed Vice-President Junqueras to jail, the Supreme Tribunal decided to set its own defendants free under bail.

The jailing of part of the deposed Catalan government sparked an immediate controversy, with a large part of the public opinion in Catalonia denouncing what it perceived as the incarceration of “political prisoners” by an authoritarian government that is using the court system against its political rivals. This claim is certainly misplaced: few criminal systems among Western democracies would permit a public official’s open and flagrant breach of the constitution and the laws to go unpunished. The Spanish judiciary is an independent institution within a well-functioning democracy that operates under the rule of law. This is in part confirmed by the fact that two different courts have reached separate conclusions on the pre-trial detention issue; moreover, it is likely that the, for now, more lenient Supreme Tribunal will assume the entirety of the investigation. What is more doubtful, however, is the appropriateness of the prosecutor’s decision to call for the application of the full force of the law against the defendants. To begin with, it is not clear that the crime of rebellion (which requires the use or threat of violence) is applicable in this case, and, considering the political situation, it might have been better to leave out those charges that do not neatly fit the events under investigation, even if some degree of legal maneuvering may make them relevant to the case. And, more importantly, the request for pre-trial detention was a blunder by any measurements, and an unnecessary one for that matter. The imprisonment of part of the Catalan leadership in the midst of an electoral campaign is certain to inflame passions among secessionist supporters and even among moderate Catalan nationalists, and will conveniently feed a narrative of victimization and oppression constantly resorted to by the independentist coalition. And there is little justification for such a harsh (and unwise) preventive measure in this case: the regional leadership decision to participate in the new elections will arguably dissuade them from becoming fugitives, and holding the flight of some members of the deposed government against those who decided to stay sounds somewhat preposterous. In this regard, the more experienced and higher ranked judge conducting the investigation for the Supreme Tribunal appears to have made the better decision in granting bail to his defendants.

The decision to request that the Belgian authorities turn in Puigdemont and his “exiled” government, on the other hand, appears to be appropriate, given their unwillingness to voluntarily appear before court. In addition, their immediate abandonment of Catalonia after having no less than declared its independence brings their leadership into question. Nevertheless, the party that until recently headed the Catalan government has decided to place the deposed president at the top of their ballot. Indeed, part of the idea behind Puigdemont’s Belgian journey may have been to try to force an extradition at the climatic point of an electoral campaign he could very well win. This would further polarize Catalan public opinion and show a wider rift between the Catalan people and the Spanish government (given the possibility that the person whom Catalans could vote into office would be just then sitting in detention).

The possibility that the very same actors that have played (on both sides) a key role in the present crisis will be the ones taking part in the upcoming election is a troubling one, beyond the mere curious possibility of having a jailed official elected. This is because a continuity of players will likely mean a continuity of the same policies that have led to the current situation. Right now, all evidence suggests that the election will be a very close one, so a secessionist victory is not a given; among other things, pro-secessionist parties have failed to reach an agreement and run as a united ticket, although they could still form a coalition similar to the one that initially brought them to power. But one thing is clear: if the political and institutional leadership remains unchanged, there will have to be at least a change of approach, or else the impasse will irremediably continue, leaving Spaniards and Catalans with no solution in sight. Part of that change will have to come from secessionist leaders themselves. Puigdemont may have provided some room for hope when he recently signaled that there may exist some alternative way out from the existing confrontation other than independence, although the nature of that alternative remains to be seen. But the central government’s discourse must also show a greater degree of openness to dialogue and willingness to engage in reform, even if it remains constant (as it should) in its defense of the rule of law.

One avenue for such reform will be the newly-established parliamentary commission charged with studying the current system of territorial autonomy. This commission, presided as it is by a member of the opposition socialist party, should propose the necessary constitutional amendments to provide the basis for an agreement between the contending sides, in a manner that acknowledges the supremacy of the Constitution while at the same time recognizing the necessity of a constitutional change that follows the legally-established procedures. Part of that change could include the transformation of Spain into a formally federal system, the devolution of greater powers to the regions, or even the recognition of the “nations” that comprise Spain and their ability to decide their status within the larger Spanish nation. This would not only address some of the concerns expressed by discontented regional groups; it would also signal a shift in the current government’s stance to one that is more tolerant of minority demands, thus making alternatives to radical separation more palatable. Unfortunately, the ruling Popular Party has already expressed its skepticism towards constitutional reform, and this positioning is unlikely to contribute to an improvement of the situation. Similarly, the Basque and Catalan nationalist parties in the Spanish legislature have refused to participate in the commission, thus showing a lack of willingness to genuinely engage in the kind of dialogue that they so often demand. Given how things stand right now, this unwillingness to compromise by so many relevant players will only make matters worse. Political actors should not shield themselves behind the uncertainty of the upcoming elections, and should seek to actively engage with the other side in a manner that makes a mutually-agreeable solution possible, and that makes the electoral outcome less decisive. Because, regardless of who wins on December 21, one thing is clear: without evidence of good will and sensibility from both sides, there can be no hope of a long-term solution to the crisis.



NATO to Increase Mobility Capabilities

November 10, 2017



In a move to counter Russian aggression, NATO is set to reorganize in an attempt to increase the organization’s mobility and increase the organizations capabilities to respond to perceived Russian aggression. This potential move would be the first reorganization of NATO’s command structure in thirty years.

While ongoing multi-national NATO training exercises continue to be conducted under Operation Atlantic Resolve, (an operation started by the Obama administration to reassure European allies of the United State’s commitment to its European allies after Russia annexed Crimea), NATO leaders will meet next week in Brussels to discuss the potential reorganization. NATO Defense Secretary Jens Stoltenberg recently stated the need for NATO to change “Our ability to move troops is essential to deterrence and collective defence,” he said. “The world is changing, so Nato is changing.” These comments come after a Russian show of force called Operation Zapad along various European borders. Both NATO and Russia have a joint agreement in which both parties agreed that exercises along the border would be limited to 13,000 troops or less. This was a goodwill agreement between the two parties, however NATO officials have accuses Russia of well exceeding that 13,000 troop agreement under Operation Zapad.

While this potential reorganization is being debated, the United States has already sent the newest apache helicopters to Europe in an attempt to increase the United State’s ability to respond to threats in the region. These helicopters will be used in various training exercises in Operation Atlantic Resolve. With this said, the helicopters took some time to clear customs in various countries in transit to their final destination which has lead many U.S. military commanders to ask for an U.S. – European joint legislation to reduce the customs paperwork on military equipment and to speed up the transit process.

In the end, there is no end in sight to the continuous saber rattling along the NATO and Russian borders. The U.S. and NATO simply want to ensure that their forces are able to respond as quickly as possible in the unlikely event that a conflict breaks out between the two parties.


The European Roots of American Halloween

November 1, 2017

Halloween has become a traditional American holiday consisting of dressing up in costume, pranks, superstitions, and trick-or-treating. While this Americanized holiday in recent years expanded internationally, this seemingly ‘American’ holiday and its various festivities have European roots. While many think Halloween came from the Days of the Dead celebrations in Mexico, Latin America and Spain, Halloween actually comes from the Celtic holiday Samhain (sow-in).samhain

The Celts lived over 2,000 years ago in the area that is present day Ireland, U.K, and northern France. Their new year began on Nov 1st and was celebrated the night before with Samhain. Samhain literally translates to summer’s end, and is a festival of the dead that celebrated the end of the harvest and the beginning of a dark, cold winter which, during that time, was associated with human death. The Celts believed that on this night, October 31st, the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred. Therefore, in order to ward off ghosts, they would light bonfires and wear costumes. During the festival they also burned animals as sacrifice and left crops and wine on their doorsteps for the Celtic deities. They also believed that the presence of the otherworldly spirits made it easier for Celtic priests to make predictions about the future, adding to the mystic atmosphere and superstitions that surround Halloween today.

festivle s

During the eighth century, the Christian church wanted to change the Celts’ religious practice and tried replacing Samhain with All Saints’ Day, also known as All Hallows. This rebranding failed, however, and Christians then deemed November 2nd All Souls’ Day to celebrate the dead. All Saints’ Day then became the festival to honor any saint who did not already have a day of his or her own and the mass on this day was called Allhallowmas (the mass of all those who are hallowed). The night before became known as All Hallows Eve, and eventually morphed into what we call Halloween.

As European immigrants came to America, they brought their Halloween customs with them. The first festivities were held to celebrate the harvest; neighbors would share stories of the dead, tell each other’s fortunes, dance and sing. By the middle of the nineteenth century, annual autumn festivities were common. The wine and food for Celtic deities at the doorstep were eventually replaced with bowls of candy and carved pumpkins that resemble the crop sacrifices of the Celts.

old costumes

The practice of trick-or-treating was borrowed by Americans from old Irish and English traditions where poor citizens would beg for food and families would give them pastries called “soul cakes” in return for their promise to pray for the family’s dead relatives. The distribution of soul cakes was encouraged by the church to replace the ancient practice of leaving food and wine for roaming spirits. The practice, which was referred to as “going a-souling”, was eventually taken up by children who would visit the houses in their neighborhood and be given ale, food and money. They began to dress in costume while practicing this tradition and in 1939, the phrase “trick or treat” appeared for the very first time.trick or treat


Updates on Catalonia

October 26, 2017

Rajoy addressPuigdemont address

The crisis in Catalonia may be reaching its decisive point this week. After the controversy surrounding the October 1 referendum (see our blog post from October 5,, whose unconstitutionality as declared by the Spanish judiciary resulted in a widely mediatized police crackdown that galvanized public opinion worldwide, the political standoff has only worsened. The Catalan government (Generalitat) relied on the results of the referendum (90 percent in favor of secession with a turnout of 43 percent, most anti-secessionist Catalans not participating due to the referendum’s declared unconstitutionality) to announce an ambiguous declaration of independence that it immediately proceeded to suspend, for the alleged purpose of engaging in dialogue with Madrid. The Spanish government, led by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, refused to engage in any dialogue outside of the boundaries of the Constitution (although it did invite Catalan President Carles Puigdemont to speak before Parliament), and responded by threatening to invoke Article 155 of the Constitution if the Generalitat did not backtrack its steps. Article 155 allows the central government to “take all measures necessary,” after approval by the Senate, to compel the authorities of a region acting against their constitutional obligations to return to the framework set by the Constitution. The government warned that Article 155 would be triggered if President Puigdemont did not clarify, within a deadline of several days, that it had not declared independence, and if, after an additional deadline, it failed to then withdraw that declaration. Puigdemont refused to do either, relying on vague answers that did not satisfy the government’s demands. As a result, the Spanish Executive decided to take the unprecedented step of invoking Article 155, calling moreover for much harsher measures than originally anticipated: the removal from office of Puigdemont and his cabinet, the intervention of Catalan police and public media, a veto power over the Catalan parliament’s decisions, and the call of early regional elections within six months (at which point the applicability of Article 155 would expire). The proposed measures were then sent to the Senate for deliberation and approval.

There is little question that the government is justified in its use of Article 155, at least from a rule of law perspective. The decision was taken with the support of the near-totality of constitutionalist parties in the Spanish Parliament, including the main opposition group, generally very critical of the current conservative government. And most constitutions with devolved autonomy (federal or otherwise) provide for intervention mechanisms when regional authorities abuse that autonomy in a way that is contrary to the overall legal framework, as has happened in Catalonia. Otherwise, devolution of powers would constitute a blank check for action not subject to legal accountability (think of the military’s intervention in Little Rock to enforce desegregation against a hostile state government).

A different question is, first, whether the Generalitat was justified in its violation of Spanish and Catalan legality throughout its independence bid, and, second, whether the specific measures called for by the government were proportionate and politically wise. The first question is a politically subjective one that this blog post can do little to answer, and that will depend on the reader’s sympathies. It is worth mentioning, however, that although the Spanish government is duty-bound to defend the rule of law as reflected in the Spanish Constitution, the Constitution itself is not a document written in stone, and it provides for the possibility of its own amendment. Ultimately, the rule of law implies not so much normative as procedural rigidity, and so long as the process of reform follows the legally-contemplated mechanisms, there should be room for mutually-agreeable changes to the existing system. Unfortunately, the administration of Mariano Rajoy refused to pay heed to Catalan demands for reform earlier in the present decade, and that intransigence may have played a role in driving some Catalans towards unilateral secessionism. The Catalan administration, for its part, is currently displaying a similar degree of intransigence in refusing to make any concessions regarding its independentist claims, even though the main Spanish parties have now agreed to the prospect of reforming the constitution assuming a prior return to legality in the region. Puigdemont knows that confrontation will help his cause, as it may bring international support and force Catalans to take sides. But he also knows that a false step could culminate in a temporary loss of Catalan autonomy (and of his own office) and the reversion of decades of political and economic expansion in Catalonia. Thus, it would seem that dialogue leading to constitutional reform should be the best available solution. The continuing escalation, however, makes that solution seem unlikely, at least in the short term.

The second question (regarding the adequacy of the particular measures proposed under Article 155) is certainly controversial, but part of the government’s calculation may have been the current lack of verifiable democratic support for any eventual declaration of independence given the degree of abstention and the absence of guarantees during the referendum. The government may have felt that, if there is any appropriate time for forceful action, it is now, given that the international community will not back any retaliation by the Generalitat in the form of unilateral independence. In fact, the representatives of EU institutions and the most influential European leaders (such as President Macron and Chancellor Merkel) have come out in support of Rajoy’s decision, stating that the solution to the crisis must go through the framework of the Spanish Constitution. Nevertheless, such strict measures as the removal of the current Catalan leadership and the intervention of the regional administration are likely to lead to a climate of extreme confrontation between the government and important sectors of the Catalan society, who will actively oppose the administrative takeover and reinforce the narrative of “oppression from Madrid.” Thus, even if the government were to succeed in carrying out the proposed measures (something that is by no means certain given the predictable degree of opposition that they will face in Catalonia), the path chosen will do little to dispel secessionist sentiments, and will likely lead to an increased level of polarization, hostility, and conflict.

As of this writing, the government’s proposal for the application of Article 155 is being debated (and is likely to pass based on the ruling party’s majority) in the Spanish Senate, where Puigdemont refused to appear after initially signaling that he would accept the chamber’s invitation to explain his position during a hearing. Simultaneously, the Catalan parliament is meeting to discuss its response to the likely triggering of the Article, a response that may include a (this time definitive) unilateral declaration of independence. For a brief moment, there seemed to be some hope of a mutually-accepted solution when reports started coming out Thursday morning that Piugdemont would call for snap elections during a televised address, something that the Spanish government had suggested could potentially put a break to Article 155’s application. But after postponing the address twice, the Catalan President finally appeared on television to announce that he would not call for elections due to the alleged lack of “guarantees” offered by the Spanish government. Therefore, the standoff continues, and the abyss appears to be closer than it has ever been. The next couple of days will likely be decisive for the outcome of the current crisis. But with both sides continuing their entrenchment, and with an ongoing escalation that is making the situation more volatile by the hour, there appears to be little room for any such outcome to be a positive one.


Hunting in Europe: A Rich Man’s Sport

October 20, 2017

This year I’ve decided to take up hunting. My goals in this endeavor are two-fold.

First, I for the longest time have wanted to take ownership of the overall process of taking the life of an animal. For years now, I, like much of our society has been guilty of just going to one of the many large grocery stores and purchasing our meat pre-packaged because it’s convenient and easy. Additionally, when we do this, we don’t think about the animals that are often force-fed who knows what to fatten up quickly for the consumer.

Secondly, I’m frankly bored of eating the same cuts of meat I’ve always eaten. Beef, pork, and chicken rarely excite me, even when they are prepared in ways near and dear to my heart. I’ve seen all these amazing looking recipes that call for wild game yet I have limited access to these cuts, and I’d rather hunt and process the animal myself (see the first point) than rely on a butcher to jack the prices up for the seasonal cuts of meat.

So, with these two points of “why I have decided to pursue hunting” established, let me tell you something I found fascinating. In doing research, I found that approximately 6% of the U.S. population, or 13.7 million Americans hunt. I, being a curious EURO graduate student, wondered how many hunters there are in Europe. After doing some additional research, I discovered that approximately 8 million of the 740 million Europeans hunt, meaning only 1% of all Europeans hunt. This was shocking to me as I figured the European figure would be closer to the American figure.

After thinking of possible reasons why very few Europeans hunt, I first looked at the overall access to hunting grounds Americans have versus Europeans. I hoped to show a figure or graph comparing the public land acreage in the U.S. to that in Europe, but I was unable to find such a figure, as Europeans generally are restricted to hunting on private land, typically with a professional guide – which is expensive. How expensive? On average the 1% of Europeans who hunt spend between $27,000 and $32,000, every year, on hunting, whereas the average hunter in the United States spends $2,484 every year on hunting. This is truly baffling to me as this makes hunting in Europe an activity for the wealthy and privileged, or “the top 1%”.

If you think about it though, hunting in Europe has for centuries been an activity for the wealthy- and this does go back to the access to hunting grounds Europeans have versus Americans. For example, in 1079, William of Normandy established Forest Laws, which prohibited the peasants from hunting deer or pigs from the woods, felling lumber, or any activities that would disturb the wild game. Essentially, William of Normandy kept the woods for his enjoyment and use. The punishment if caught poaching wild game from the King’s Wood ranged between a hefty fine and in severe cases even death. Today, law enforcement uses drones to catch poachers in the UK who illegally kill deer and other wild animals. (For more information on this click here.)


Thanks to the efforts of numerous conservationists including Teddy Roosevelt, the U.S. created the National Park system, which gives hunters access to over 640 million acres of public land to hunt, fish, and explore.


At the end of my research I realized two things, first, European hunting is and always has been, a rich man’s sport. Secondly, the American Dream is still alive and well when it comes to hunting as just about anyone, no matter their stage in life or socioeconomic status can take up this sport, thanks to the efforts of a few conservationists.



Immovable Object Unstoppable Force: Angela Merkel, Vladimir Putin and the New Politics of Containment

October 13, 2017

Monday, October 2nd, the Institute for European Studies held an event discussing the personal relationship between Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin. Joyce Mushaben, who received her Ph. D. from Indiana University and is currently Curators’ Distinguished Professor of Comparative Politics & Gender Studies at the University of Missouri St. Louis, was the keynote speaker for this event, talking about her latest book, Becoming Madam Chancellor: Angela Merkel and the Berlin Republic (Cambridge University Press, 2017). Professor Mushaben compared and contrasted Putin and Merkel in order to give us an intuitive understanding of their relationship.putinmerkel1

Professor Mushaben begins the talk by examining the backgrounds of both characters, which shows clear similarities and stark differences. One of these comparisons is their similar rise to power; both leaders grew up under a common enemy and were political outsiders that were pushed into positions of power by their mentors. Before this, another similarity arises from their younger years when they both spent time living in the other’s country. In 1977 Merkel traveled across the Soviet Union as an exchange student and in the mid-1980s Putin was stationed in Dresden, Germany as a KGB agent. In 1989, with the fall of the wall, Merkel, being from East Germany, stated this shows “dreams come true” but for Putin it meant destroying as many secret police files as possible. Merkel had an inside understanding of the Soviet Union and therefore has a better understanding of Putin as well. While in Dresden, however, Putin did not see the dissatisfaction of the Soviet people because he was shut off from most news. Putin was also cut off from the enthusiasm for democratization in his country and only came back to see Gorbachev fall and the collapse of the Soviet Union which he considers to be “one of the greatest geo-political disaster of the century.” Therefore, Putin saw the invasion of Crimea as ‘reuniting’ Russia’s historically legitimate territory and he didn’t understand why Germany did not support his ‘reunification.”

In order to describe Putin and Merkel’s current relationship Professor Mushaben uses the ‘unstoppable force paradox’ as a metaphor. This paradox asks the question “What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object?” She defines Putin as the unstoppable force and Merkel as the unmovable object. While Merkel looks at the bigger picture, Putin uses force and attacks weaker powers like in the Georgian, Ukrainian and Crimean conflicts.


  One way to explain the unstoppable force paradox is with the shield and spear story. A man was trying to sell a spear and a shield. When asked how good his spear was, he said that his spear could pierce any shield. Then, when asked how good his shield was, he said that it could defend from all spear attacks. Then one person asked him what would happen if he were to take his spear to strike his shield; the seller could not answer.

Professor Mushaben continued the talk by highlighting the contrasts between Merkel and Putin’s leadership styles. Merkel is data driven and deals with situations in a scientific way through trial and error, always learning from her mistakes. Meanwhile, Putin uses his machismo and intimidation. He stages photo ops to accompany this persona and his policies take this personality on as well. Putin has broken with the Soviet women’s ‘equality’ movement, barred foreign religion and is against homosexuality and outlawed propaganda of this sort. Putin’s use of intimidation can be seen in one of his meetings with Merkel. Angela Merkel is extremely afraid of dogs, and Putin, knowing this, brought his large dog to meet her. An additional complication in their relationship is that Putin does not understand that western leaders cannot rule the way he does. Putin has a patron client relationship with his people (if you do what I say you will get rewarded and if you do not you will be punished). Putin is, however, vulnerable when it comes to Russia’s economy and Merkel knows this is where she can rein him in with sanctions. Professor Mushaben even states that Obama understood their relationship and turned to Merkel to help handle Putin after the Crimean invasion.


Professor Mushaben further discussed the complexities of their relationship describing how Merkel and Putin are on a first name basis with each other and stressed the importance of them both being able to speak in each other’s native languages, in which they use the informal ‘you’. They usually speak to each other in German and Putin even corrects his German translators when talking to Merkel, perhaps another intimidation technique, to show nothing gets by him. Soon we will see how Russia and Germany’s relationship will evolve as Angela Merkel goes into her fourth term as Chancellor and Putin goes up for re-election in 2018. Recently, however, Putin say he is unsure if he will run for re-election at all, but if he did most polls show he would win in a landslide.


For more information on Dr. Mushaben’s new publication see:






Referendum in Catalonia: Beyond the Headlines

October 5, 2017

According to a recent article in the New York Times reporting on the October 1 independence referendum in Catalonia, “police officers in black RoboCop uniforms and Darth Vader helmets blocked ordinary citizens from voting. They beat people with batons, fired rubber bullets and wounded pensioners. All of it was captured by smartphones and news cameras and spread around the world. It is the kind of violence the European Union would ordinarily condemn in high moral terms and even consider punishing. But that was not so easy this time. The nation in question was one of its own: Spain.” The article goes on to imply that, in a conflict between “the fundamental democratic rights of free speech and free assembly and of individuals to vote,” on the one hand, and notions of sovereignty and territorial integrity, on the other, the EU is choosing to side with the latter for self-interested reasons; namely, discouraging regional separatism across Europe. But, on this occasion, the NYT may have missed part of the point. It is indeed true that the European Commission, while generally condemning violence and calling for dialogue, has so far remained behind Spanish Prime Minister Marian Rajoy, claiming that “[the Catalan referendum] is an internal matter for Spain that has to be dealt with in line with the constitutional order of Spain,” and affirming its “trust [in] the leadership of prime minister Mariano Rajoy to manage this difficult process in full respect of the Spanish constitution and of the fundamental rights of citizens enshrined therein.” It is also true that the EU is likely to see in Catalan separatism a return to the very nationalism that the project of European integration was meant to overcome. But in this show of support, the concern that remains at the forefront of the cited statements is not that of a blind defense of territorial integrity; rather, it is that of something much more fundamental to European ideals: the rule of law.

Police 1


Beyond the sensationalist headlines, the situation in Catalonia, and its explosion during the attempted vote on Sunday, is marked by a number of complexities that require a serious analysis. Despite the powerful and disquieting imagery of armored police beating down on peaceful voters, the question is not simply (or perhaps even not accurately) one of democracy versus repression, or of popular action versus state power. The dispute is in fact one between conflicting notions of democracy, and ultimately between the rule of law and the desire for self-determination, which is precisely what makes the whole situation so complicated, and so ripe for polarization and uncompromising viewpoints.

To begin with, with regards to democracy, both sides claim to be acting in its defense: one camp defends the right of a distinct community to decide on its own future by means of the ballot, while the other defends the right of democratic majorities to have their decisions respected when dissenting minorities are adequately (and even super-proportionally) represented in the decision-making process. This brings us to the question of the rule of law, which is inescapably tied to that of democracy. Because, in any democracy, the right of citizens to vote must occur within the boundaries set forth by law: not everything is subject to a vote, and certainly not by whatever self-defined group and in accordance to whatever ad-hoc procedures (or else the principle of democratic majoritarianism would be emptied of any meaning).Rajoy The Spanish Constitutional Court declared the Catalan government’s law calling for a referendum on independence unconstitutional for contravening the fundamental principles of the Constitution that all Spaniards, including Catalans, democratically voted for in 1978, and which marks the commonly-agreed-to rules of democratic participation. Insofar the referendum deviated from those rules, it represented a challenge to democracy, a challenge that the central government was legitimized to oppose.

But that is not the end of the discussion. While Catalans’ claim of a right to vote may not be sheltered by democratic principles, it may find justification in the idea of self-determination. The question is thus whether the drive for self-determination is a legitimate one in the present case, a question for which different actors will have different answers. But we should at least clear away some misconceptions. Catalans are at the moment not an oppressed minority (even if they may have been at times in the more distant past): they live in an advanced democracy (Spain) in which all citizens have equal rights to political participation and representation; Catalonia is a region that enjoys an important degree of autonomy (to the point that the region’s political institutions are currently serving as a platform for independence); the Catalan government, elected by the residents of Catalonia, eagerly promotes Catalan culture and language in the region; and, even in the current time of crisis, the central government is choosing not to take control over the regional administration, which it would be authorized to do under Article 155 of the Constitution in cases of exceptional emergency. Nevertheless, Catalan historical distinctiveness, along with more recent conflicts with the Madrid government (especially following the 2008 recession) may provide a degree of legitimacy for demands of increased self-determination. That is a political question for which there is not necessarily an objective answer. But it is evident that the Madrid government also has a legitimate interest in preventing that answer to be provided unilaterally and outside of the boundaries of constitutional democracy.

Preparations Are Made Leading Up To The Catalan Independence Referendum

A different issue, however, is whether the government’s response to the referendum was an appropriate one. Many would agree that it was not. True, the national police were following court orders, after the regional police largely refused to fulfill its assigned role of preventing the polling stations from opening; and the intervention, rather than targeting the voters, was meant to seize referendum materials and close down the locations in which the vote was occurring, which in turn lead to clashes with those seeking to protect their own ability to vote. But there is no doubt that the police response was heavy-handed and likely disproportionate, with officers using rubber bullets and batons against unarmed civilians; in the end, the injury-toll exceeded 800 (representing those who were treated by the health services, the number of persons actually requiring hospitalization being limited to four). In addition, the very notion of thousands of agents acting against the population was overall a troublesome one, and rightly generated the image of a repressive atmosphere in which force was the principal measure resorted to by the state. This image was also problematic from a public-opinion perspective, and led to a predictable reaction by the international community. Even the EU, within the framework of its support for the Spanish government, condemned the use of violence as a means to resolve the situation and called for dialogue among the parties involved.

Moreover, the resort to the police as the method to quell the aspirations of Catalan secessionists may have served to further fuel secessionist sympathies, and to strengthen the Catalan government’s claim of the need for further distancing from Spain. Indeed, Carles Puigdemont, president of the Catalan regional government, was quick to capitalize on Sunday’s events, condemning Madrid’s actions, calling for international mediation, and claiming that the results of the referendum (ninety percent in favor of secession, with an alleged turnout of forty-two percent) gave him a mandate to push forth with a unilateral declaration of independence.

Puigdemont 3

The results of the referendum, however, are questionable, not just because of the irregular nature of the vote, which offered few of the guarantees required for a poll to be certified internationally, but also because of the self-selecting nature of the participants: the Constitutional Tribunal’s declaration of the referendum’s unconstitutionality likely meant that those Catalans who still consider themselves bound by the Spanish legal system (who would arguably also be those holding a deeper allegiance to Spain) viewed the vote as illegitimate. In other words, participation in the referendum was itself a good indicator of the participant’s political stance on the issue of self-determination.

But, going back to the procedural irregularities of the referendum, it is important to note that this may have in fact been one of the main factors behind the central government’s decision to use the police as a disruptive force. The logic behind this decision, regardless of its strategic and even moral questionability, is evident: in the knowledge of the constant threat of intervention by the state’s security forces, the Catalan government would be forced (as it indeed was) to conduct the vote in a semi-clandestine and makeshift manner hardly compatible with the openness that a polling process requires. Examples of this were the print-at-home ballots, the lack of judicial oversight, or the (quite literally) last-minute decision to change the voting rules to provide for a universal census and for voters’ ability to vote in any center of their choice, with voter-ID checks based on a rudimentary and often malfunctioning (or police-intervened) software. Moreover, the very seizure of ballot-boxes and the closure of polling centers by the police may have served to further discredit any announced results of the vote.

Under these conditions, regardless of the causes, it is clear that the results of the referendum cannot be seen as genuinely representative. The question, now, is how the different actors will play their cards in the coming days. And, at this moment, it seems like the EU’s call for dialogue within the boundaries of the Spanish Constitution is the best available option, for right now the situation has become a lose-lose one. On the one hand, any unilateral declaration of independence by the Catalan government would lack legitimacy in the eyes of the international community due to its breach of Spanish democratic legality and to the lack of verifiable popular backing, and it would likely compel the Spanish government to trigger Article 155 of the Constitution and assume control over the Catalan administration. On the other hand, a continuation of heavy-handed, hardline policies by Madrid will almost inevitably close the window for any potential political settlement in the future, and will drive more Catalans towards radical secessionism. Naturally, any dialogue would mean that both sides would have to make concessions, but those concessions can still happen within the boundaries set forth by the rule of law, including the resort to a constitutional amendment process if need be (which, for example, could transform Spain into a formally federal system).

As Roger Cohen of the New York Times writes, “[i]t’s obvious that the middle ground needs to be re-created in Spain, that Rajoy (if he survives) must drop his high-handedness and Puigdemont his destructive hubris, and that a dialogue is essential. A creative road to a federal Spain could, with time, be imagined.” In a seemingly insolvable conflict between the rule of law and a nation’s quest to redefine its relation to the state, a process of constitutional reform, respectful of the requirements set forth in the Spanish Constitution, may provide the only opportunity for accommodating both sides of the dispute, or at least the parts of those sides that may still be willing to engage in some form of meaningful dialogue. It is precisely this middle ground that the EU seems to be advocating for in the statements cited at the beginning of this piece, and its advocacy for dialogue appears at this moment to be the most prudent stance. The alternative is a continuation of the current downward spiral of confrontation, in which all sides are likely to lose more than they will ever gain.