Opinion piece by Gabriel Colomé
Once Again, Fake News from a Catalan Secessionist!
I was surprised to read the article by Aleix Sarri Camargo in your “View” section, titled “The trial of Catalan referendum leaders casts a long shadow over the EU’s credibility”.
This article reflects, yet again, the shameless use of falsehoods by Catalan secessionist politicians for the sole purpose of justifying independence for Catalonia. I respect the fact that he is a seccesionist; however, given that in Spain and in the EU we are living in democracies, I would like to clarify those points that are clear misrepresentations of the truth. In a democracy, we seek to debate real information, not fictions invented to further a cause.
I agree with Mr Sarri that the EU’s democratic credibility is crucial. Precisely because of that, neither the EU nor any other State in the world (the United Nations has 193 members) recognised the unilateral declaration of independence made by the Catalan secessionists on 27 October 2017, because it was illegal, and did not have a democratic mandate—minor details that Mr Sarri has not mentioned in his article. I will now explain why I do not share his opinion that the trial and possible conviction of the separatist politicians would be a blow to the EU’s credibility.
The secessionist narrative has been based on a relentlessly consistent argumentation: We, the secessionist, are being persecuted for our opinions, for defending democracy, for putting out ballot boxes to exercise our right to decide. The action of the Spanish government and the Spanish State has been repressive, authoritarian, and without respect for human rights. The consequence has been that in Spain, today, there are political prisoners behind bars for their ideas, that Catalonia’s home rule was suspended, and that its legitimate government, the Generalitat, was removed. Therefore, the deposed President of the Generalitat went into exile in Brussels with some of the members of his government. The court decision has already been handed down, because there is no division of powers in Spain, and the justice system takes orders from the government. A political trial, a pre-judged case. The end.
However, is this narrative—which mixes populism, lies, and, above all, a great deal of emotion—really true? Let’s go step by step, and analyse this pro-independence narrative that frames the debate as between the good guys and the bad guys, between democrats and anti-democrats, as a confrontation between Catalonia and Spain.
Secessionists claim that they represent Catalonia and have the majority and democratic mandate to declare independence. This is false. Independentists are not the majority in Catalonia. Their highest level of electoral support has been 47.5%, although in the Catalan parliament this translates into an absolute majority, given Spain’s electoral system, which rewards the country’s least populated areas. No one, anywhere in the world, tries to impose the secession of a territory without sufficient social base.
Mr Sarri, moreover, enlightens us with a figure that is also false: “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 ...” The most recent reliable surveys show that only 42% of this population want a referendum on Catalonia’s independence from Spain.
Thirdly, no written constitution in modern democracies envisages the right to secession or the right to self-determination. Indivisibility of national territory is part of the constitutional corpus. However, Mr Sarri insists that “self-determination is a peaceful and democratic road to solve conflicts”.
Fourthly, if Spain were a Francoist, authoritarian state, with a poor quality of democracy, it is unthinkable that the regional government of Catalonia could be formed by secessionist parties at loggerheads with the central government. Actually, in the latest “Democracy Index” published by The Economist, Spain is included in the category of the world’s 20 “full democracies”, ranking 19 out of 20, out the 167 countries studied. However, Mr Sarri is convinced that the EU should intervene in Spain, as it has in Hungary and Poland, even though no European institution has proposed doing so.
The most interesting aspect of this situation is how the secessionist version of events attempts to substitute reality with the same fiction purported by Mr Sarri: “the existence of political prisoners and the lack of separation of powers” in Spain. The reality is that there are no political prisoners in Spain. No politicians are being detained in Spain for their ideas or their opinions, but rather, for their acts.
To understand this statement, let us briefly examine a chronology of the political events that have occurred in Catalonia since September 2017, and which have led to the current situation.
On 6 and 7 September 2017 the pro-indepence majority in the Catalan parliament, acting during the opposition’s absence, voted in favour of two laws that demolished the constitutional system and the rule of law: the Referendum Act, which provided for a unilateral referendum on independence; and the Act on the Legal Transition and on the Founding of the Catalan Republic, basis of the future authoritarian republican constitution that would dissolve the prevailing constitutional system. Spain’s Constitutional Court suspended both Acts.
On 1 October 2017, the illegal referendum was held—without any democratic guarantees, and with utterly invalid participation and outcome data.
And now we come to 27 October. The secessionist majority again voted, in a half-empty parliamentary chamber, an ersatz declaration of independence. As I have noted above, no State in the world, nor any international organisation, recognised this independence.
A dizzying whirlwind of events followed. That very same day, the Spanish Senate voted to apply Article 155 of the Constitution, and the national People’s Party government removed the Generalitat’s regional cabinet and called Catalan elections for December. In the meantime, the deposed President of the Generalitat fled to Brussels. As the Belgian Prime Minister, Louis Michel, noted at the time: “One does not declare independence and then just flee.” Mr Sarri referred to “Catalan exiles”, but they are not exiles; they are fugitives from justice.
To summarise: These prisoners are not in jail for their political ideas, nor for putting out ballot boxes—they are in jail because of their offences against the Spanish Constitution and the Catalan Statute of Autonomy, and for attempting to subvert the democratic system and rule of law in Spain. This is their political and criminal responsibility. Furthermore, pretrial detention or jail on remand exists in all democracies, and the flight of a number of secessionist politicians is clearly unhelpful to those who stayed to face the consequences of their actions.
What would the effect on the EU’s democratic credibility be if these secessionist politicians were not tried, after circumventing the basic foundations of democratic rule of law in Spain? Or perhaps Mr Sarri believes that they are above the law, and above the norms of democracy?
Gabriel Colomé is professor of political Science at the Autonomous University of Barcelona.
Opinions expressed in View articles are solely those of the author.