European inaction on fundamental rights’ violations in Catalonia will ease the path for soft versions of authoritarianism to invade the whole European continentAdvisor to the European Parliament
Nine Catalan politicians and social leaders (seven elected MEPs) are in pre-trial detention for up to six months. They have been accused of rebellion or sedition, and face between 15 and 30 years in jail. The so-called rebellion refers to the 1 October referendum, organized by Carles Puigdemont’s government, in which more than two million Catalans voted despite the violence of Spanish police that left 893 people injured and was condemned by Human Rights Watch, among others. A rebellion organized with ballot boxes is indeed a strange rebellion.
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Incredible as it may sound, at this point Catalan political prisoners have spent more time in jail for organizing a referendum than members of the paramilitary group GAL who, following orders from the Spanish interior ministry, tortured and killed in Euskadi during the eighties -- a clear case of double standards.
Many Spanish unionists tend to forget that, as established in Article 472 of the Criminal Code, peaceful and orderly demonstrations do not constitute a crime of rebellion. What’s more, calling, organizing and holding a referendum is not a crime in Spain after the relevant articles from the Criminal Code were removed in 2005. In fact, even declaring independence is not a crime according to Spain’s Criminal Code. The misuse of funds charges also sound fake, taking into account that this week Cristóbal Montoro, Spain’s finance minister, recognized that no public funds were used for the referendum.
The Spanish outrage at the so far unsuccessful attempt to extradite Carles Puigdemont for rebellion has been loud (for example a Spanish member of the European People’s Party said that “If the European arrest warrant doesn’t work, Schengen is useless”) and aggressive (with a prominent Spanish commentator calling a German federal minister “racist”). However, the hypocrisy of this outrage has also been brought to light, as not so long ago, many former high-ranking nazi officials were protected from extradition in Spain. In the latest turn of events, the Spanish Supreme Court has harshly criticized the German court deciding on Puigdemont's extradition case, a move that has not escaped the attention of German media.
The fact is that the interpretation of Spanish law has been systematically biased against the Catalan pro-independence movement. The latest blow to its credibility has been the rejection by Spanish judge Pablo Llarena to allow imprisoned MP Jordi Sànchez to exercise his political rights and be elected as president of the regional parliament, as even the UN had advised in its precautionary recommendations. Llarena keeps Catalan leaders in prison because, due to their political convictions, there is risk of “reoffending”.
The fundamental problem is that Spain's political transition, widely praised for decades, was deeply flawed. In the name of reconciliation, a big chunk of the Spanish deep state never faced reform, preserving its right-wing elites and practices inside the police, the military or the judiciary system. Contrarily to Germany, Francoism was whitewashed in Spain and the country’s past was never confronted.
In Spain, the Francisco Franco Foundation is legal, has received public subsidies and staunchly defends the dictatorship. Meanwhile, El Valle de los Caídos, the mausoleum where the dictator is buried together with Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera, ideologue of Spanish fascism, is officially considered National Heritage of Spain and also receives public funds. There has never been a trial on the excesses of Francoism and one shall never forget that Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s Partido Popular (People’s Party or PP) was founded by seven former ministers from Franco’s regime.
For months (and years), Carles Puigdemont and other Catalan leaders have called for a negotiated political solution. However, not surprisingly, Rajoy has rejected around 20 times to negotiate on a possible Scottish-like referendum in Catalonia. A situation that may not change soon, as the unionist block (the PP, Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) and Ciudadanos) has been solid in its rejection of political concessions. Moreover, Ciudadanos may win the next election thanks to its hard right stance on Catalonia.
One should not expect much from King Felipe VI either. In his 3 October speech, the King abandoned his stance as a neutral referee of political life, to become the leader of the Spanish authoritarian counter-reaction to the Catalan self-determination process and a wider repressive offensive that has received strong criticism from Amnesty International and the international press.
In Barcelona on Sunday, several hundred thousand demonstrators took part in an historic, peaceful rally to show their support for the release of the Catalan political prisoners. Moreover, 44 MEPs from 15 nations have already demanded the detainees be freed in order to have a dialogue without pre-conditions between Catalonia and Spain. However, without greater outside pressure, it does not seem realistic to find a political solution for Catalonia any time soon as the Spanish side is unwilling to take a seat at the table.
Meanwhile, authoritarianism is on the rise not only in Spain but all around the world. Authoritarian countries like Russia or China receive less criticism than ever, and Trump’s bombastic rhetoric and opportunistic foreign policy has undermined the democratic leadership of the United States. The defense of human rights is disappearing from the Western agenda while Tibetan, Uighur and even Hong Kong activists in China end up in prison for defending the use of their language in schools or a more democratic system.
This is why defending the right to self-determination, democracy and historical memory is unavoidable for Europe. European inaction on fundamental rights’ violations in Catalonia will ease the path for soft versions of authoritarianism to invade the whole European continent and compromise the idea of democracy as the best tool to solve political conflicts around the world. Catalonia’s crisis is Europe’s wake up call.
Aleix Sarri Camargo is an advisor to Ramon Tremosa, an MEP for pro-independence Catalan party The Catalan European Democratic Party. He is also co-author of “Why the Euro Is Failing.”
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