A CATALÁN AMONG THE PIGEONS – Madrid defies EU law to punish separatists

Catalonia and the rest of Spain have seldom seen eye to eye.   The hostility began long before the Spanish civil war.   The 18th century War of the Spanish Succession saw Catalonia choose the losing side in a fight between Phillip V and the Habsburg pretender, Archduke Charles, and in 1714 Phillip took his revenge on Catalonia when his Bourbon troops blew up Barcelona and killed its soldiers.  During the Spanish Civil War, Catalonia’s problem – indeed, the problem of the Republican forces throughout Spain – was a shortage of weapons and equipment.   And allies, of course.  The Republicans could never understand why France, Britain and Russia failed to arm them when Franco’s nationalists were well supplied by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, whose pilots bombed Republican positions with their Savoia-Marchetti aircraft (never very effectively, according to the British writer Robert Payne, although one such attack left him permanently deaf in his right ear and with shrapnel in one buttock).  

Quim Torra, President of Catalonia
in 2018 © Wikicommons

At one point, after a stunning Republican victory near Mora de Ebro, they believed they could actually win.   The success, which surprised the Nationalist forces, came about because the Republican troops crossed the Ebro in fishing boats transported under cover of darkness from the coast.  A group of five foreign correspondents invited to the front, including Payne, believed so, too.   He related in his book, Eyewitness, how Juan Modesto, the Republican General in charge there, described to his front-line visitors how the odds were stacked.  On a map in his underground bunker headquarters, situated in the middle of a vineyard, he pointed out the positions of the German guns and the line across the Republican-held Sierra de Pandols, which was holding despite some losses.   Payne wrote of the exchange and of Modesto’s explanation: “‘They have tried hitting us for a week, but our lines have been maintained,’ he said.   A young Spanish correspondent said ‘How many heavy guns have they got?’   ‘Eighty-four,’ Modesto answered.   ‘How many have we got?’  ‘Three’”.   Even so, Payne told me years later of the sense of euphoria he had shared that day at the possibility of victory.   The shortage of matériel was also stressed by the author George Orwell, who joined the International Brigade of left-wing Republican sympathisers.   In his book, Homage to Catalonia, he wrote: “Against machine guns and without artillery there are only three things you can do: dig yourself in at a safe distance – four hundred yards, say – advance across the open and be massacred, or make small-scale night-attacks that will not alter the general situation.   Practically the alternatives are stagnation or suicide.”   Nor was there much protection for the fighters.   “We had no tin hats,” wrote Orwell, “no bayonets, hardly any revolvers or pistols, and not more than one bomb between five or ten men.”   That’s no way to fight a war; as The Roman senator and historian Cornelius Tacitus wrote: “The gods are on the side of the stronger”.

Prime Minister of Spain Pedro Sanchez
© wikcommons Pool Moncloa
/ Borja Puig de la Bellacasa

Today, Catalonia’s strongest and most ardently voiced argument for independence is not its tangled history, but simple economics.  It’s claimed that Cataláns pay about €10-billion more into Madrid’s coffers than they get back, pushing Catalonia into debt.   It’s a debt that comes to €77-billion.   The facts and figures are disputed by the Spanish government, however, and Catalonia has a record of high-level corruption going back years, with top officials siphoning off the tax take for personal gain under a system known as “el tres por ciento” – literally the 3%.   The former president’s family, the Pujols, and a number of Catalonian politicians are currently under police investigation for allegedly embezzling more than €1-billion.   Some have already been jailed.   Furthermore, according to entrepreneur and podcaster Jean Galea, Madrid transfers more of its own GDP to less-developed regions of Spain than Catalonia does.   However, Catalonia does impose the highest taxes on its citizens, including a wealth tax that Madrid has dropped.   On the plus side, though, Catalonia benefits from billions of euros in EU structural funds.

Francisco Franco © Wikipedia

IN, OUT, SHAKE IT ALL ABOUT

Cataláns often protest – sometimes quite loudly – that “Catalonia is not Spain”.   When I filmed the annual ‘books and roses’ festival in Barcelona on 23 April 2015 – St George’s Day – there was strong nationalist fervour on display, which included an elderly man draped in the Catalán flag and playing patriotic Catalán tunes on his trumpet to the crowds.   There were also anti-Spanish slogans and placards much in evidence.   Even so, there was a jolly atmosphere in the hot sunshine of Barcelona’s very crowded streets, the sky a brilliant blue and everyone out to have a good time.  It was a far cry from what the city witnessed last October, when riots and violence disturbed the normal tranquillity after nine separatist leaders were handed long prison sentences for organising a referendum on independence and briefly declaring that Catalonia was breaking away from Spain as a result.   The Barcelona civic authorities have since repaired the damage to road surfaces caused by the protesters’ bonfires.

Toni Comín © Wikicommons

To anyone outside Spain, the sentences seemed draconian and out of all proportion: the separatists had organised a referendum, not a revolution.   No guillotine was erected on the Plaça de Catalunya, no tumbrils carried terrified aristos (or centre party supporters) along Las Ramblas to be shortened by a head in front of cackling crowds.   It all smacked more of reprisal than righteousness, more jealousy than justice.   Quim Torra, Catalonia’s former President (since dismissed) described the savage sentences as “the inheritance of the dictatorship, not a trait of democracy”.  Prime Minister Sánchez disagreed: “Nobody is above the law,” he said at the time, “and we must all comply with the law.   In a democracy, no-one is judged for their ideas or for their political projects, but for crimes defined in Spanish law.”   However, no-one ever successfully quelled the anger stirring a mob by being unfair to its leaders, at least not for long. Inspiring more anger to quell anger seems counter-productive.  It’s true that England’s Peasants’ Revolt in 1381 came apart when the then mayor of London murdered their leader, Wat Tyler, in front of them, but it didn’t really resolve the underlying cause – the unpopular poll tax and a cap on wages – and the king, Richard II, who witnessed the killing eventually came to a rather nasty end.  In the eyes of the world there is a big difference between criminal prisoners and political prisoners and the pro-independence politicians look suspiciously like the latter to many observers outside Spain.

As far as Catalonia is concerned, it’s a question of being in-and-out of Spain.   For the pro-independence politicians elected to the European Parliament, it’s been more a case of in-or -out of prison, and even in-and-out of the European Parliament.   Support for independence has declined among Cataláns, according to Spain’s El País newspaper.   Quoting the regional government’s official CEO research centre, the paper writes that only 41.9% of Cataláns favour going it alone while 48.8% are opposed to the idea, the highest percentage against Catalán independence since July 2017.   It’s worth noting, though, that this survey – supposedly of 1,500 people – was carried out before the pro-democracy politicians were given such surprisingly severe sentences by Spain’s Supreme Court.   Attitudes may have hardened in the face of what many see as intemperate justice.   Or even no justice at all.   The fact is that Catalonia is not, nor ever has been, an independent state absorbed against its will into the Kingdom of Spain.   It results from the merger of three kingdoms: Castile, Aragon and Navarre (although Navarre was taken by force).   The crowns of Castile and Aragon were merged in the 1480s without much controversy at the time.   Incidentally, Aragon as an administrative entity includes Catalonia, Aragon itself, Valencia and the Balearic Islands.

Comandancia de Barcelona © Wikicommons Bernard Gagnon

Of the 54 members of the European Parliament Spain elected in May 2019, 11 were from Catalonia and within the region, pro-independence parties won 49.71% of the vote.   It was a close-run thing but it was not a win for those favouring an independent state.   Getting elected to the European Parliament has further muddied the water.   It’s worth bearing in mind that neither the European Commission nor the European Parliament have ever shown much evidence of courage or conviction.   They prefer to take the easy route.   If they tried to organise a climb of Everest they’d stop at the first base camp and drink coffee until erosion wore the slopes down to a more reasonable flatness.  In a thriller written by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s father, Stanley, a bold Commissioner stands up to villainous Swiss officials and even gets the IRA involved in bombing the enemy.  The book is called The Commissioner.  The story is based very loosely on an incident in which a Swiss whistle-blower alerted the Commission to a breach of international law by a Swiss company generating illegal pollution over EU territory.  In reality, however, the Commission of the time revealed all the details to the Swiss authorities and the whistle-blower ended up in jail.   Not very heroic.

Madrid Parliament © Wikicommons

WAYS FORWARD AND OBSTACLES

So the Parliament’s unwillingness to accept its (theoretically) dangerous new members was always likely happen.   The Cataláns were disappointed and dismayed by the lack of international comment or outrage at the ludicrously severe prison sentences and they viewed the response of the Liberal group leader in the European Parliament, Belgium’s Guy Verhofstadt, as nothing short of betrayal.  Like many others, he saw it as an internal matter for Spain.  The European Free Alliance group in the European Parliament, which sits with the Greens and is made up of regionalist politicians, was outraged.   “The situation facing our group colleague Oriol Junqueras and his fellow Catalán politicians Carles Puigdement and Toni Comin is appalling,” said MEP Alyn Smith of the Scottish National Party, now an elected member of the British parliament, “I am always at pains to stress that Scotland is Scotland and Catalonia is Catalonia, but the EU is surely about democracy and dialogue, where the actions of Madrid are seeking to use ever more outrageous interpretations of the law to close dialogue down.” 

“Ara es l’hora” “The time is now” T shirt

The fact is, EU leaders always start to twitch when any region begins to talk about seeking independence.   France is nervous about Brittany and the Basque country (a worry shared with Spain, since the region traverses the frontier), Britain about Scotland, Belgium about Flanders and so on.   Flag-waving is almost always a provocative act, especially in these times when populism is on the rise.   Spain’s harsh reaction to the Catalán independence movement is rooted in the years of violence the country suffered over the Basque country and its ETA terrorist group.   The Basque country is still part of Spain but enjoys more devolved powers than Catalonia; granting the Cataláns similar status may very well end the taste (limited though it is) for full independence.   Now that Spain has a government again – after a year without one – it’s possibly the simplest route forward for Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez.  After all, his coalition with the far-left Unidas Podemos depended upon him doing a deal with the strongest of the pro-independence Catalan parties, Esquerra, so that its thirteen members in the National Congress would abstain in the vote to choose Sánchez as prime minister and form a government, allowing the coalition to go ahead, although Sánchez had a cliff-hanger victory.  The final vote was 167 to 165, the slimmest margin for choosing a prime minister for decades.   The very tight margin of victory is leading to speculation that the resulting coalition may not last long.   During his four-year term Sánchez will face opposition from three right-wing parties.   He met with the leaders of Esquerra in Barcelona just before Christmas to hammer out a deal.   The separatists will have undoubtedly obtained some concessions in return for their support.   The result is Spain’s first coalition government since democracy was restored in 1978, three years after the death of Francisco Franco, who had ruled as dictator for 36 years.

Puigdemont and Comin were initially refused accreditation by the European Parliament because they had not been sworn in at a ceremony in Spain.   That is because they have been living in Belgium to avoid arrest.   However, the Luxembourg-based European Court of Justice, which rules on EU law, took the view that both men became MEPs immediately upon the conclusion of the votes being counted and that they therefore enjoy parliamentary immunity from prosecution.   If Madrid wants to arrest them, the judges decided, they would have to request the European Parliament to lift their immunity.   MEPs are unlikely to support such a request.

Meanwhile, the Catalonia row has reinvigorated Spain’s far right.   In Spain’s most recent elections – and there have been four in as many years – the party that gained the most was the new hard right party, Vox, which took 15% of the vote.   Up until five years ago, Spain had a two-party system, with power swapping between the Socialists and the centre-right Partido Popular, which in turn was derived from Alianza Popular, a party originally set up by people who had been officials under Franco.  It did undergo some changes and the absorption of more moderate parties before emerging as PP, as it’s most commonly known.   However, the dispute over Catalonia and the calls for independence have led some Spaniards to look more favourably on Vox, which comes closest to holding the sort of extreme views that might have found favour with the Generalissimo himself.  Its success derives in part from encouraging and exploiting public fears about illegal immigration.  Vox, though the most extreme, is not the only new party to emerge: the new Congress contains members from no fewer than sixteen parties.   The days of any party ruling alone with a healthy majority would seem to be over.

REMEMBERING THE PAST, LOOKING TO THE FUTURE

King Felipe VI in 2011 © Wikicommons

Vox is the only party to actively oppose Sánchez’s plans to dig up the body of Franco in order to transfer it from the Valley of the Fallen, effectively a nationalist shrine, to a public cemetery near Madrid where his wife is also buried.   The plan has majority support, it’s claimed, but Franco’s descendants wanted his body reburied in a prominent tomb in Madrid’s cathedral.   The plan went to the Supreme Court, which backed Sánchez.  Vox has described the idea as a “profanation” of Franco’s tomb.   The Socialists want the Valley of the Fallen to become a kind of museum for those wishing to remember or commemorate the civil war and those who died on both sides.   It’s easy for us to dismiss the idea of a cathedral honouring a man many still see as a butcher but Leicester Cathedral in England proudly displays the tomb of King Richard III, whose body was found under a council car park in 2012, and he is reputed to have killed many people to take the throne.   These include Prince Edward of Lancaster, possibly King Henry VI, Richard’s own brother George, Duke of Clarence, (drowned in a vat of malmsey wine, according to Shakespeare), his two nephews, who were heirs to the throne, and perhaps his wife, Ann, too, among many others.   Not a nice chap, by all accounts, although history is always written by the victors and the Tudor dynasty, derived from Henry VII, victor of the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, put an end to the last of the Plantagenets by killing Richard, who allegedly fought on bravely after being unhorsed several times.  They may have had a hand in the subsequent character assassination, too, although it was Shakespeare who set the seal on his supposed villainy.

So what happens now?   Early in January, the Solicitor General of Spain, Rosa María Seoane, asked Pablo Llarena, a High Court judge, to suspend the European Arrest Warrants issued for Carles Puigdemont and Toni Comín in respect of their part in the independence referendum in 2017.   Seoane said that Llarena must first apply to the European Parliament to withdraw their immunity before reissuing the warrants for those politicians who argued for independence.   Spain accuses them of sedition, which my Oxford English Dictionary defines as “public speech or actions intended to promote disorder; vaguely any offence against the state short of treason; insurrection”.   Madrid seems to be stretching the definition somewhat.  In the case of Puigdemont, the indictment accuses him of “crimes of sedition and embezzlement of public funds”.   In his case, the European Arrest Warrant had to be issued twice; the first one, issued in July 2018, was withdrawn when Germany refused to hand Puigdemont over; European Arrest Warrants can only apply where an alleged offence would also be against the law in the country where the fugitive has sought sanctuary.  Now Belgium has followed suit, refusing to send Puigdemont back to Spain in the light of the Court of Justice ruling.  Seoane has agreed that the ruling granting parliamentary immunity to Oriol Junqueras must also apply to Puigdemont and Comín.   If the European Parliament votes to turn down the request and the politicians serve out their full five years, we must assume that arrest will follow the end of their terms of office.   Unless they are re-elected, of course, but who knows what may be happening by 2024?

HISTORY OF A RECENT STRUGGLE

The story of Catalonia’s bid for independence began to take shape properly in November 2014, when the then Catalán president, Artur Mas, reacted to Spain’s continuing economic crisis by calling for a split from Madrid.   His administration was unpopular because of its own austerity policies, and some accused Mas of opting for an independence campaign to divert public anger away from Barcelona and towards Madrid.   In fact, there was already quite strong anti-Madrid feeling because the Spanish constitutional court has decided to annul or reinterpret parts of the 2006 Catalán statute of autonomy, thus considerably back-pedalling on an agreement to grant the region greater independence.   So, in defiance of Spain’s 1978 constitution, which is based on territorial integrity – “the indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation” – Mas’s government held a symbolic, non-binding referendum on Catalán independence, winning 80% of the vote.   However, only 2.3-million of Catalonia’s 5.4-million eligible voters – 43% – bothered to vote at all.   As a consequence of this act of rebellion (if that’s what it was) Mas was barred from public office for two years. 

Three years later, ignoring warnings from the Spanish government and the constitutional court, Mas’s successor as president, Carles Puigdemont, decided to hold a unilateral referendum.   The outcome, for him and his associates, was easy to predict: the referendum was illegal and Puigdemont had been obliged to ignore angry opposition within the Catalán regional parliament, including claims that he had disregarded the usual procedures.   The law authorising the referendum was struck down by the constitutional court, and Spain’s then prime minister, the centre-right Mariano Rajoy, determined that the vote would simply not take place.   To this end, he flooded Catalonia with police officers who tried to stop people voting, sometimes by violent means.   If anything could have persuaded the Cataláns to opt for independence it was this violent repression of what – however illegal it may have been – was an act of peaceful democratic decision making.   Despite the police, 42% turned out to vote and 90% of those who voted chose independence.   The actions of the police were reported around the world and Spain’s reputation was severely tarnished as a result.   Puigdemont signed a declaration of independence nine days after the vote, suspending its effect for two months to allow for talks.   But Madrid was in no mood for talking.   The actual declaration itself, on 27 October, 2017, was boycotted by many opposition MPs, and less than an hour later, the Spanish Senate approved the use of Article 155 of the constitution, granting Rajoy’s government the right to take over direct rule of Catalonia, to sack Puigdemont and his cabinet and call a regional election.   In the resulting poll, almost 48% voted for three pro-independence parties, but the centre right Ciudadanos, a pro-unionist party, did best, winning 37 seats.   Once this new parliament had been sworn in, in June 2018, direct rule was brought to an end.

Results of the votes for the “Declaration of sovereignty” at the Catalan Parliament,
on 23 January 2013 © Wikipedia

The whole affair has not reflected favourably on Spain or Spanish democracy.  The violence deployed during the referendum in a bid to halt it was repeated when Catalans protested at the severity of the sentences.   In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Brutus, on finding the dead body of his co-conspirator, Cassius, says “O Julius Caesar, thou art mighty yet.  Thy spirit walks abroad, and turns our swords in our own proper entrails.”  Perhaps some will say the same about Franco.   The fact that so many people voted to break away, even if it was not a majority, suggests something is wrong.   Sánchez, with his tiny parliamentary majority, cannot afford to take chances: coalitions can be unstable, especially in a country not used to the idea.   Spain has a long record of having its internal divisions misunderstood, misreported and exploited by those with other agendas.   George Orwell cites examples of this deliberate (or, rarely, accidental) misinformation in his book, Homage to Catalonia.   “The thing that happened in Spain was, in fact, not merely a civil war but the beginning of a revolution,” he wrote.  “It is this fact that the anti-Fascist press outside Spain had made its special business to obscure.   The issue has been narrowed down to ‘Fascism versus democracy’ and the revolutionary aspect concealed as much as possible.”   He goes on to describe how the world was largely misled by horrendous over-simplification of a complicated situation: “In England, where the press is more centralised and the public more easily deceived than elsewhere, only two versions of the Spanish war have had any publicity to speak of: the Right-wing version of Christian patriots versus Bolsheviks dripping with blood, and the Left-wing version of gentlemanly republicans quelling a military revolt.   The central issue has been successfully covered up.”   Both sides fell to name-calling and the accusations were picked up or ignored, according to the political inclinations of the newspaper concerned.  

Much the same happened with British reporting of the Troubles – the violence between Republicans and Unionists in Northern Ireland.   The Derry politician John Hume, founder member of the Social Democratic and Labour Party in Northern Ireland, and architect of the Peace Process, used to complain that none of the correspondents covering the events there seemed fully to understand what was going on.   If they did, then they either ignored it, or else their more accurate reports were simply rejected by news desks determined to pursue their own agendas.  And yes, I’ve certainly had plenty of experience of that happening.  The reality was both simpler and far more complicated than the news media bothered to explain.   Few outside the north of Ireland had a clue as to the real events, few inside it (with the possible exception of faction leaders) were interested in opinions other than their own.   Spain really doesn’t want to go down that road.   Anyone with any doubts need only visit Belfast, with its ugly “peace walls” between republican and loyalist areas, and the streets of unglamorous houses with gardens still protected with high metal barriers to prevent any thrown missiles from landing on the householders.

There are some uncomfortable parallels with the 1930s.   Just as Fascism and Nazism were on the rise at the time of the Spanish Civil War, and threatening to destabilise a continent, so we now have populism that shows no sign of weakening in the near future, despite some setbacks.   The PIS in Poland and Hungary’s Fidesz are not going away and enjoy huge public support, even if the far right in Italy and Austria have faced some recent challenges.   Boris Johnson’s anti-Europe Conservatives have won a huge majority in the UK, which will weaken the European Union and delight Vladimir Putin through Britain’s now inevitable withdrawal from the Union.   President Macron is on record as saying that the Europe we have known is in grave danger, now that the US president’s vision for it differs so much from much of Europe’s.   He wants to develop a military aspect to the Union to back up its soft power with steel, but others can see danger in that, too.   The United States, Russia and China will always be far more potent in military terms.   Europe could never hope to match them.   Meanwhile, more and more people displaced by war, hunger and extreme poverty are making for Europe in the hope of a better life.   And, of course, the populists on the far right will exploit this fact by warning of terrorism, theft, rape and other crimes, as if Europeans never commit such acts.

Now Puigdemont’s successor as President, Quim Torra, has been sacked by Spain’s Central Electoral Board (CEB) for declining to take down from his office by a fixed deadline a variety of pro-independence symbols supporting the jailed independence leaders.  He has been stripped of his position as a deputy when his 18-month ban from public office expires, too.   It was a narrow vote, though: seven votes to six, despite the ban being urged by Partido Popular, the centre-right Ciudadanos party and by Vox.   The Catalán parliament, which is controlled by pro-independence parties, rejected the CEB’s decision.   And so it goes on: an independence movement that has just less than majority support in Catalonia and virtually none anywhere else in Spain and a government hitherto determined to quash dissent by whatever means.  Except that Sánchez may change that if his government can find a way forward that doesn’t upset too many people.   I wish him luck.   It won’t be easy.   The history of the previous century is packed with horrible examples of where failure can lead.

T. Kingsley Brooks

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