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A view from Europe: Policing and the rule of law

Pictures coming out of Catalonia on Sunday showed Spanish Police Officers losing control of the peace. 2000 kilometres away, on the EU's other flank, the example of Hungary's authoritarian government could help their Spanish counterparts to gain a little perspective.

23rd October 2006 is remembered in Hungary for so much more than just being the fiftieth anniversary of the country's gallant uprising against their occupiers from the Soviet Union. The events of that later day would lead to possibly an even greater upheaval than fifty years previously, as they went on to give a landslide victory to Viktor Orbán's Fidesz party at the next election. Orbán remains cemented to power today.

A month before, in September 2006, I'd been in my little ground floor flat in Budapest, listening to the World Service on a scratchy FM signal, when I first heard about then Prime Minister Gyorcsány's speech. He'd been recorded telling his quasi-Socialist party that they'd "lied morning, night and evening" and that "there aren't many choices. That is because we have fucked it up. Not just a bit, but a lot."

I was working nights and days back then, manning the desk of a Budapest hostel before going off to teach intensive English courses in the mornings. I watched proceedings that September night on the little old television above the front desk of the Backpack hostel. I saw protesters storm the Hungarian television building, attacking the Police who had been sent to keep them out. Even water cannons and tear gas were not enough to disperse the crowd, who replied with a volley of cobblestones that injured 141 police officers. The protestors were joined by some local football hooligans and they went on a rampage, setting fire to cars, to parts of the building itself, and even to a water cannon! The Hungarian television building in 'Freedom' square remains closed to this day.

So it was clear the next month's '56 commemorations would likely get out of hand. I'd quit the hostel by that point, was working for a school downtown when my boss suggested we all leave the city for the weekend. We gladly agreed to the adventure of getting to a village in the southwest Orség region by local buses and regional trains, and it was on one of those trains that I learned the vital skill of opening wine bottles with a wooden spoon.

But while we were off rollicking through the countryside, it was all kicking off in the capital. Police had been drafted in from across the country and used every technique available to them to try and keep order. Besides the tear gas and water cannon, their arsenal now included horses for mounted charges and rubber bullets. Yet all this brought was chaos, not order. At some point a tank was stolen from the official celebrations and driven triumphantly down one of the city's main avenues. Fighting lasted for two days, until protesters barricaded the main 'Elizabeth' bridge. To get them off, police fired rubber bullets and tear gas canisters at people's heads. The resulting chemical assault was so intense that, when our language school's secretary arrived to open up that morning she was in floods of tears after walking the fifty metres from the Metro. At least 128 people were injured, including 2 blinded, and 19 police officers.

What Orbán learnt from that experience was that, in order to command public respect and order in the streets, his police force would have to be another animal entirely - he knows that any excessive use of force could easily have unintended consequences by making his government appear weak and out of control.

In Spain, Prime Minister Rajoy would've done well to follow his Hungarian counterpart's example; televised beatings of peaceful protestors and open confiscation of ballot boxes is never a good look, even if you feel you have the law on your side. Because laws can be changed and constitutions amended, Orbán gave Hungary an entirely new constitution in 2011 and has been amending it ever since, but scars can last for generations. Forget Brexit, Greece, the former Yugoslavia, this Catalonia question has the potential to be the EU's biggest test to date.

Also in the Series

Catalonia and Scotland
How history has caused the differences between Scottish and Catalan independence

The Hungarian Referendum
Hungarian President Viktor Orban uses referendums to push his political agenda

The Decline of the European Left
Traditional left parties are losing out, but is it all the fault of the far right?

The Left's Resurrection
How a new left emerged out of centerism

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The Aimless Wanderer

Brits in the EU: a video project to collect the views of British people living and working in Europe.

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Scribblings: analysis and original research from the Aimless Wanderer

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Audiovisuals: Aimless Wanderer Podcasts and videos of Adam.

Writing a few days after the events of 1-O, as they're calling it in Spain (1 October, not 1-0 to Reál or Barca), there now appears to be an open road towards armed conflict. First the Catalans will unilaterally declare independence, then Madrid will use their constitutional authority to rescind the autonomous nature of the region of Catalonia, and assume direct rule.

But the authority of the two national police forces, the Policia Nacional and the Guardia Civil, has been comprised; as Orbán knows well, on-camera baton charges do not engender respect. So, either police numbers would have to be increased significantly to enforce control, or the army would have to be called in to patrol the streets. In that atmosphere, it would only take the odd hot head to have a pop at a soldier and things could escalate in no time at all.

In all that comes over the next days and months, the role of the Catalan armed police force 'Los Mossos d'Esquadra' will be key. They chose to sit out of the action on Sunday, to remain neutral. Despite arguments and a Twitter storm of abuse from their supposed comrades at the Guardia Civil and others, Los Mossos are now the only civilian power capable of keeping the streets calm. The Civil Guardsmen and National Police officers who went into Catalonia's villages and towns in civilian clothes, after polls had closed and with the apparent intent of causing havoc, can now testify to the value of retaining authority - when crowds appeared outside the hotels where those officers were holed up, it was only the lines of Mossos across main entrances that prevented the masses from getting inside.

Six years ago, Los Mossos themselves used batons and teargas to clear protestors and tents from the occupied squares of the 15-M movement. After Sunday, many now regard them as the upholders of democracy, not the oppressors. On 1 October they chose to follow orders from Barcelona. Presuming they that keep their current public respect, Los Mossos' willingness or otherwise to change allegiance and take orders from Madrid, or to resist, will have a major say over the future of Spain and maybe even Europe.

Adam R. Mathews, Madrid, 4 October 2017

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