Could Spain Go the Way of Yugoslavia?

    Svante E. Cornell

    Security, Europe

    People hold Spanish flags during a gathering in favour of a unified Spain in Barcelona

    To students of ethnic conflict, this sequence of events is all too familiar, and reminiscent of how conflicts in Yugoslavia and the Caucasus started some twenty-five years ago.

    In recent years, the European Union has been bogged down by one crisis after another—from Greece to the Euro to Brexit. But happily, none of these have endangered what has underpinned European integration since the late 1940s: securing lasting peace among European states. Europe has not been spared political violence, as residents of Northern Ireland and the Basque country can attest to. But to almost all Europeans, the notion of armed conflict within their midst is no longer even thinkable. While the Catalonia crisis is not destined to degenerate into large-scale violence, European and American leaders do not appear to take the potential for conflict seriously. They are mistaken.

    The Catalan crisis was triggered by utterly irresponsible behavior on the part of both the region’s and Spain’s leaders. While opinion polls show a majority of Catalonia’s residents oppose independence, Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont called a referendum on independence that was rushed through the local parliament and was, by all standards, illegal. Unsurprisingly, since opponents of independence would not cast a vote in an illegal poll, less than half of eligible voters took part. Yet defying logic, Puigdemont concluded the pre-ordained yes vote gave the region a “right” to independence.

    Had the Spanish government simply ignored the referendum, nothing would likely have come of it. But instead, Mariano Rajoy’s government sent in the paramilitary Gurdia Civil to prevent the vote from being held. In scenes not seen in Europe for decades, they seized ballots, shot rubber bullets and physically dragged people away from polling stations, injuring hundreds.

    The war of words continues. Catalonia threatens to declare independence; Madrid warns it might revoke Catalonia’s far-reaching self-rule.

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