Spain’s crisis over the independence bid of its Catalan region keeps escalating in its legal and electoral drama. Yet with Spanish authorities now seizing control of the autonomous region’s government, both sides are wondering if a violent conflict is inevitable. So far, sentiments for peace seem strong, in large part because of one important player in the background: the European Union.
The continent’s relative peace since World War II has been rooted in the EU’s promise of shared prosperity and common democratic principles. Several moves by Catalan secessionists in recent weeks, such as a referendum and a declaration of independence, have been done outside Spain’s Constitution. This is in sharp contrast to the use of rule of law by other places in the EU that had attemped to gain independence, such as Scotland in a failed 2014 referendum.
Spain’s government itself erred in using police violence during the Oct. 1 referendum vote in Catalonia. Nearly 900 people were injured as police tried to suppress the voting. Widespread reaction to this official crackdown, especially among top EU officials, has now helped temper any tendency for more violence.
“I hope the Spanish government favors force of argument, not argument of force,” tweeted European Council President Donald Tusk.
The ousted president of the Catalan government, Carles Puigdemont, has called for “democratic opposition” to Spain’s takeover. And many pro-independence Catalans plan massive civil disobedience. Yet any confrontation that leads to violence will only hurt both sides, especially in their critical relationship with the rest of Europe. They need only recall the tough economic sanctions against Russia for its use of armed force to take Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.
To help defuse possible tensions, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has called for a Dec. 21 election of leaders for Catalonia. The vote will not only be constitutional but may officially reveal what the pollsters have found: Most Catalans prefer to stay with Spain, although with greater powers of autonomy. In addition, Catalans have seen more than 1,000 businesses leave the region as tensions have grown.
Rule of law and economic ties are exactly the EU’s foundations. The Union was designed to suppress the kind of rampant nationalism that challenges borders and leads to war. The higher principles of the EU are at work in this crisis, even if they may be hard to see.