One year has passed and Catalan politicians and social leaders are still in prison. The leaders responsible for the referendum of October 2017 have been kept in jail without bail or trial, accused of a rebellion that no one saw. If someone thought that this was a temporary state of affairs, that they would be released any time soon, reality has proven to be more durable than common sense.
Meanwhile, the EU has remained silent. Despite its actions in Hungary and Poland, Brussels has not dared to move on Spain despite the obvious failings in judiciary independence and a lack of separation of powers. One wonders if there is a unwritten rule not to put into question the integrity of Western European democracies.
217 years in prison is the sum total punishment facing the Catalan politicians and social leaders accused of organising an imaginary rebellion that, according to the prosecutor, includes casserolades protests and articles in such controversial places as the Washington Post. The trial will start at the end of January; unfortunately, it is quite probable that the decision has already been taken and the prisoners will be condemned to many years in jail.
The fact that Germany, Belgium and Switzerland have seen no reason to extradite Catalan exiles on the basis of rebellion seems irrelevant to a Spanish judiciary that has listened more to the popular accusation led by far-right party VOX than to its European colleagues.
These days, even when Amnesty International and the World Organization against Torture have called for the immediate release of imprisoned social leaders, the silence of Spanish intellectuals becomes deafening, while some commentators have even been purged for their dissenting views. Moreover, the fact that the former President of the Spanish Constitutional and Supreme Court has said that there was no rebellion has been conveniently ignored. Overall, Catalan prisoners have already spent more time in jail than the leaders of the ‘Antiterrorist Liberation Groups’ (GAL) on state terrorism charges in the nineties.
It’s true, however, that Mariano Rajoy is no longer the Spanish Prime Minister but the situation is not much better under successor Pedro Sánchez. Even though there is now dialogue between the Spanish and Catalan governments, his lack of proposals, his denial of self-determination and rejection to drop judicial proceedings makes dialogue de facto unsubstantial.
While 80% of the Catalan population have consistently shown support in polls for an end to repression and for an official referendum like that held in Scotland in 2014, some Socialist regional presidents are already pushing for a new suspension of the Catalan government. Therefore, the problem is that even if Sánchez is not Rajoy, his governing Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) is closer than it seems to the latter’s People’s Party (PP).
Not to mention, of course, the right-wing opposition to Sanchez. As shown in the campaign in the recent regional elections in Andalusia, its anti-Catalan speeches have become mainstream and actually attract votes. The PP, Ciudadanos and VOX base their strategy on heightening Spanish nationalistic sentiment and focusing it against the government of Catalonia or, in the case of VOX, against any minority. The new Spanish nationalist coalition rising from Andalusia is committed to indefinitely suspending Catalan self-government as soon as they get to govern in Madrid, dissolving democracy in Catalonia with the probable acquiescence of the Constitutional Court.
In actual fact, over the last fifteen years, almost all decisions by the Constitutional Court regarding Catalan powers on issues of self-government (from climate change to a ban on bullfighting) have been unfavorable to Barcelona.
In the same vein, four of the Catalan prisoners have engaged in a hunger strike to denounce the unjustifiable delay of the Constitutional Court to reach a decision on their appeal. Legally, the limit is 30 days but it has done nothing for a whole year. In contrast, it infamously only took three days for the Court to accept an appeal and suspend sentencing for a group of Spanish neo-Nazis who had attacked the Catalan government’s Madrid office in 2012.
It is not surprising to learn then that the main political parties - both the PSOE and PP - openly negotiated the composition of the Supreme Court’s General Council of the Judiciary. It was so scandalous that they had to backtrack, but not before a PP spokesperson in the Senate announced to his fellow colleagues that they would control the judges who would hear the case of the Catalan prisoners from 'behind the scenes' as well as decide which parties were legal or illegal. This is not exactly what one would call a separation of powers.
This is why the stakes are high for the EU in Catalonia. If the existence of political prisoners and the lack of separation of powers is not challenged by Brussels, it sends the message that rules are not applied in a uniform way. The abuses that Europe tolerates in Catalonia will be replicated elsewhere.
At a time of rising authoritarianism, it is a missed opportunity not to set an example on how the EU tackles these issues and how self-determination is a peaceful and democratic road to solve conflicts.
Starting on 22 January, the trial against the Catalan referendum will have wide consequences for the EU and any condemnatory prison sentences will be a huge blow for the democratic credibility of the European project. Authoritarians around the world will be paying attention to the trial of Catalan leaders and the EU’s reactions.
Defending the rights of the Catalan people is in the self-interest of Europe if it wants to remain a credible and leading democratic power on the world stage.
Aleix Sarri Camargo is International Affairs Co-ordinator to Quim Torra i Pla, President of the Government of Catalonia
Opinions expressed in View articles are solely those of the author.