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A Catalan independence protest in Times Square, New York City.
Photograph: Liz Castro, Wikimedia Commons.

On October 27, the Catalan parliament voted to approve a declaration of independence from Spain. As is often the case when independence is declared against the will of central governments, no single country or international organisation immediately recognized an independent Catalonia. Governments across Europe, including the EU, have denounced the declaration, citing it as a breach of Spanish law.

Indeed, rule of law is important to any functioning democracy—this is well established. Nevertheless, many in Catalonia—and around the world—do not understand Madrid’s intransigence. Why not let Catalans have a say, as was the case in Quebec and Scotland? Do modern democracies like Spain not have peaceful mechanisms in place to address grievances? And what about the EU? Isn’t it supposed to embody the ideals of democratic dialogue and peaceful coexistence?

Regardless of the Spanish constitution, and the current federal government’s interpretation it, it’s hard not to feel that something is intuitively wrong about denying people the right to peacefully express themselves on an issue. In the eyes of many in the world, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has clearly lost the moral high ground.

But it doesn’t stop there. Catalans are staunchly pro-EU, including their president, Carles Puigdemont. Many want to leave Spain, but most do not want to leave the EU or the common currency. So, when millions of Catalans—and millions of Europeans—hear only brief, dismissive statements from EU leaders, disillusionment is bound to sink in. As it turns out, the European project is not what they might have thought. It’s less compassionate, less plural, and less democratic than they had imagined.

Beyond the EU’s handling of the sovereign debt crisis, and beyond its complete disregard for referendum after referendum result opposing deeper integration, its stubborn stance against Catalonia’s peaceful democratic expression will lose it some of its staunchest supporters. In Spain as elsewhere, Catalan independence will make a generation lose faith in Brussels.

In more ways than one, Catalonia’s unilateral declaration of independence is a watershed moment. Certainly, many people in this region see it as a righting of historical wrongs, but beyond Catalan and Spanish borders, this is a signal to the world that the European project is not about democracy, peace and human rights; it is about the gradual consolidation of power by an unelected elite, at the expense of Europe’s diversity and democratic representation.

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