The strife over the Catalan independence already dates back to 2006 when an agreement to devolve powers to Catalonia was forged between the Spanish government and Catalan authorities. However, the Spanish constitutional court stroke down the agreement in 2010. In the wake of this event, mass protests in favor of Catalan independence took place and parties supporting separatism won the majority of seats in the regional assembly (same happened in 2015). In 2014, Catalonia held an advisory vote among its citizens which resulted in favor for independence (80% favored independence; turnout of 40%).
During the period from 2010 until 2017, several legal battles proceeded in which the Spanish Constitutional Court constantly rejected any advances towards Catalan independence which ended in the culmination of the annulment of the 1st October referendum (90% favored independence; turnout: 42%). Cornering Catalan authorities over and over with verdicts by the Spanish Constitutional Court, the refusal to negotiate with Catalan authorities and by issuing red lines and threats has culminated in the one-sided independence declaration of Catalonia after a vote in the regional parliament on the 27th October.
Acts conducted by the Spanish government exacerbated conflict dynamics between Madrid and Barcelona in many ways. First, the Spanish insistence on the importance of the constitution is legally correct but facing a clear regional parliamentary majority for independence as well as strong popular support, the Spanish government should have agreed to deal with the Catalan issue in a more open-minded, institutionalized or informal manner, especially as the agreement of 2006 was not upheld. Using an analogy, facing a majority of Scottish parliamentarians lobbying for a Scottish independence, the British government was able to negotiate to hold a referendum under certain electoral conditions with both sides actively campaigning over a longer duration. This is a behavior which a liberal democracy should display with regards to movements for autonomy and we see how it eventually paid off from a British perspective. Being on the legal safe side is not always equal to be on the legitimate side as well as can be observed in the Catalan case.
Second, the use of excessive police force against the referendum in Catalonia resulted in hundreds of injured people. The Spanish government lost with this act its moral ground and conveyed the image to suppress a democratic process of regional voting. The police force was in its degree unnecessary as Catalan voters did not display aggressive, violent behavior (in almost all cases). It was futile from the very outset as the police would anyway never be able to prevent 2.25 million actual voters from participating in the referendum. Lastly, its effect was completely counterproductive as it only galvanized the then still fragmented support for independence. Criminalizing millions of people will never result in voluntary acquiescing with Madrid’s interests.
Third, between the 20th and 21st September several separatist leaders were remanded in custody for the alleged crime of rebellion and electoral board members were threatened to be fined 6.000€ to 12.000€ daily if they fail to comply to suspend the referendum. Although from a legal perspective this conduct might be perfectly valid according to Spanish law, it at a minimum raises eyebrows regarding questions of freedom of speech. Every Catalan citizen has the right to openly demand independence and the act of casting votes is a non-violent mean to aggregate and express popular will. It is hard to understand how one can one the one hand defend the Kurdish referendum in Iraq, which occurred around the same time, while dismissing this right in the Catalan case. The popular argument that the Catalans are not oppressed has no bearing because it is neither a sufficient nor necessary condition for a referendum. I cannot recall the Scotts being oppressed but still being granted the full right of voting.
Fourth, the constant threats to invoke article 155 of the Spanish constitution in order to strip legal authority from the elected regional parliament and the Catalan regional president as well as the issuing of the ultimatum regarding the interpretation of the referendum results by the Catalan government cornered Catalan executives and legislators as they were suddenly faced with an all-or-nothing situation, despite their calls for an open dialogue with Madrid. The refusal to engage in any negotiations by Spanish authorities engendered the only potential move from Catalan representatives in order not to lose face in front of their constituents: the declaration of independence on the 27th October.
Fifth, the EU behaved as a wrong advisor to the Spanish government. It is my personal opinion that I do not believe that the EU has to actively lobby for a central government in case of a potential separation as it did in the case of the UK and now regarding the Spanish government. I cannot find any such provision in the Lisbon Treaty or EU Charter that demands Juncker and Tusk to threaten EU citizens with economic punishment in a completely domestic issue. If the EU wanted to show integrity, it should have reprimanded the Spanish government for the excessive police force at the day of the referendum.
All those five reasons stated above will have a detrimental effect in the upcoming years regarding separatist movements in non-European countries. Many states worldwide look at the European Union as a guideline in questions of how to organize inter-state and intra-state relations. Myself being interested in Africa, a continent which even named its continental institution after the European Union (African Union), I cannot count anymore how often African leaders and foreign ministers permanently point at their European counterparts when criticized by NGOs or states for their conduct. This ranges from the implementation of democratic structures and processes to internal policies. To give an example, the French state of emergency which lasted from 2015 until 2017 after the Paris attacks conveyed strong executive authority to the police and intelligence services. Since then several countries, including Turkey after the 15/16th July coup dètat attempt, pointed at France to justify their crackdown on domestic groups.
The fact of the matter is that the legal but illegitimate acts of the Spanish government and the behavior of the EU will serve as a template and rhetoric excuse for non-democratic countries to suppress regional autonomous movements and weaken the ability of the EU and Western states to criticize these processes. Using the law as a pretext to prevent meaningful dialogue, engaging in excessive police force, remanding separatist leaders in custody, stripping away power from regional institutions and the use of inter-governmental institutions to threaten separatist movements with negative repercussions will become more excusable for non-democracies and weaken the legitimacy of democratic, non-violent separatist movements. The EU is going to lose a large part of its moral and liberal leverage in questions like Tibet or the Kurdish question in Turkey. Was it worth it?