A non-binding referendum on Catalan independence took place in Spain yesterday amid objections by the country's central government in Madrid, the deployment of riot troops to Barcelona and other predominantly-Catalan parts of the Spanish kingdom, and reports of ballot boxes being seized by the national police. Through their greed and recklessness, Catalan leaders have weakened Spanish democracy, betrayed their own people and undermined their respectability.
From the very beginning, the Catalan independence referendum was meaningless, unnecessary and ultimately detrimental to democracy in Europe. Advocates of Catalan independence have been hiding behind their right to self-determination, but that principle cannot be interpreted in such a way that would allow any given group to try and create an independent state whenever they feel like it. As such, the Spanish government had every right to prevent chaos and instability within its borders.
The Catalan people cannot hold a vote among themselves to decide whether or not to establish an independent state. If an independence referendum shall indeed take place, all citizens of Spain should be expected to support the autonomous region's secession. History teaches us that all unilateral efforts to create independent states resulted in violence, bloodshed and even civil war. By contrast, the separation of Slovakia and the Czech Republic, which followed a process of dialogue and negotiations, remains a great example of how to take similar steps within the limits of democracy.
Provided that Spain remains a member of the European Union and the EU's failure to satisfy the needs of the Catalan people partially contributed to the current crisis, it is necessary to monitor where Brussels will stand on yesterday's controversial referendum. It remains to be seen, likewise, whether European leaders will try to carve out a piece of Spain or stand in solidarity with Madrid. Before other ethnic groups follow suit, Brussels must step up and focus on the real problems that Europeans face today. The European Union will grow less attractive and more difficult to take seriously if it repeats the same mistakes it committed by failing to pursue an active foreign policy.
At the same time, the European government must jointly take a stand against such reckless attempts that could spark ethnic clashes, fuel regionwide instability and further destabilize Europe's neighbors.
Moreover, it is important to acknowledge the double standards regarding the creation of independent states in the West and the rest of the world. The same people who have strongly advocated separatist movements, such as the PKK in Turkey, have been mocking the Catalan people's bid for independence. The international community must adopt a single global standard to deal with similar cases in the future.
The Catalan independence referendum, like many similar efforts around the world, shows that the grand ambitions of political elites can hurt the interests of their supporters. At the same time, the political tensions in Spain are an important test of the European Union's capacity to promote peace, stability and welfare across the continent. The world must stand with the government of Spain against this blatant effort to abuse the country's democratic institutions.
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