Europe on Sunday was officially silent and collectively dumbstruck as it watched Spanish riot police barging into polling stations, grabbing ballot boxes and beating and dragging out Catalan citizens, irrespective of age or gender. Their heavy uniforms and equipment may be modern, but not so their brutality, which was ancient, pre-democratic. They had, after all, sailed in on ships that locals likened to conquering frigates of a bygone era.
As far as the European Union goes, “officially silent” means that Brussels and so many other governments in the bloc said absolutely nothing of note through all of Sunday, not a peep of protest, not even a flaccidly conventional peep, not even when the number of injured climbed to a thousand. The mass discomfiture was crystalized in the almost absolute absence of statements (from political parties, movements or independent authorities), not necessarily in support of the secessionists but at least in support of those being attacked, at least on a verbal level.
This silence allowed Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy – head of an insecure minority government and a party with a strong track record in the scandal department – to introduce as logical the irrational opinion that “there was no independence referendum in Catalonia.” Earlier and in a more reserved manner, his representatives spoke of a “farce.” Were the rubber bullets intended to force the public back into line also a farce?
We will never know how many people would have voted in the referendum, how many would have voted in favor of independence or against it, if the process building up to Sunday had gone smoothly and peacefully over the previous week, with normal (free) polling stations and properly checked electoral lists. The only thing we do know is that the voters were the only parties that behaved in a peaceful and mature manner, despite the provocations. We also know that 42 percent of voters turned out for the plebiscite and 90 percent supported the demand for independence.
If it is certain that the police violence and judicial threats took a serious toll on participation, then it is also likely that they increased the share of the pro-independence movement – not just because the majority of voters who turned up were steadfast in their resolve but also because in the past few days many citizens and parties who were neutral toward or even opposed to independence were swayed in the opposite direction by Madrid’s heavy-handed tactics. The specter of Franco’s fascism has never left Barcelona – and the way that the transition to democracy in Spain was achieved certainly didn’t help.