Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy just achieved what many thought impossible having in just twenty four hours succeeded in putting Brexit on the back-burner on the ‘list of things to worry about,’ for the EU. His heavy handed and insensitive approach to yesterday’s referendum has put succession tension in the region on the world’s front pages and will have unquestionably strengthened local resolve and pushed many ‘no,’ voters across to the independence camp simply out of family and community loyalty.
Images of ordinary decent citizens being beaten up by para military police are shocking. These weren’t the usual protesting unwashed anarchists we are used to seeing ripping up paving stones at G7 summits. They were mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters who were simply out and about with the intention of casting a vote. Rajoy has blown it and there will be consequences beyond Catalonia.
A positive vote with a convincing turnout was always a low probability event but Rajoy now has a simmering feud on his hands which will be a persistent and long lasting issue for future successive Spanish governments. And let’s not be naive here. The separatists managed to manoeuvre the national government into a no-win situation by refusing to engage and offering no optionality forcing the government down a path of action which would have negative repercussions across the worlds press. Of course, the federal police agencies weren’t forced into their heavy-handed actions. That simply amplified the impression that normal people are being denied their democratic rights. Moreover, the reported 42.3% turnout lacks legitimacy even if 90% of the votes were in favour of separatism. Legislation for the vote was only passed 4 weeks ago and opponents of independence simply refused to debate or engage in any meaningful way. The referendum was held in a manner that would not pass any independent audit with separatist movements issuing their own ballot papers and the local government suggesting that voters even download their ballot papers from a Catalonian government website.
Prime Minister Rajoy’s credibility though is shot to pieces. Rajoy anyway relies on minority parties to help him with his legislative programme in parliament and some of those may be less well disposed to sit in his corner. The problem for the EU is that this comes at a time when many national governments in Europe, including Spain, have minority governments and with Merkel struggling to form a coalition there is a striking lack of leadership across the EU with the possible exception of France where of course Macron is flying into strong headwinds of his own with his reform programme.
I have consistently repeated two views regarding the EU and Brexit. First, that we are better off out because the whole monstrous construct is structurally flawed and will anyway, implode at some future point because of accelerating national divides, (watch the trend in popularism infect Eastern Europe, Belgium and Italy in the months ahead), and economic disparity between north and south. Second, that whilst an advocate of Brexit my long-held concern is that Westminster lacks the expertise, experience and wisdom, both politically and within the civil service to ensure a smooth and elegant exit. Funny how both are manifesting themselves simeoultaenously.