“They will not dare, right?” If I had a cent for every time a European politician, advisor or journalist asked me that regarding what is Spain ready to do to keep Catalonia inside its ranks, I would be rich by now.
Sometimes reality sounds too heterodox, too shocking. This is commonly the case with the situation in Catalonia. Because, at the end of the day, isn’t Spain a trusted member of the international community? Isn’t Madrid the capital of a fully-fledged democratic country? Why would they repress a democratic movement instead of negotiating with it?
How do we explain that today an EU country has political prisoners inside its borders? How do we justify a prime minister implying on live TV that the country’s Prosecutor’s Office would follow his instructions to bring a political rival in exile back to Spain for trial? How do we imagine that there is a Minister of the Interior in an EU country condemned for not investigating torture? How to accept that a EU country has approved a gag law that allows it to spy on your telephone without the approval of a judge?
Well, all this is going in Spain, and has everything to do with its authoritarian reaction to the Catalan demand for self-determination. The verdict of the Spanish justice on 14 October was harsh against Catalan politicians and social leaders, that is to say between 9 and 13 years in prison and a condemnation for sedition and misuse of funds for having organised or called for participation in the 2017 referendum.
Never mind that no euros of public money was used (as acknowledged by Minister Montoro in 2018). Never mind that referendums were decriminalised in 2005. Never mind that declarations of independence were deleted as offenses from the Criminal Code in 1995. The trial was about punishing those who have dared to question the sacred unity of Spain; the exact charges were just a pretext to send a message to the next generation.
However, the European reader of this article would be very much mistaken to think that all this is not going to affect him/her. On the contrary, it already is.
The EU works by precedent. Good precedents are useful; they help to export best practices around the continent and abroad, to inspire and are an incentive for innovation and good policies. Bad precedents are a disaster, and if fundamental rights are at stake, undermine the most valuable good of the EU: its democratic credibility.
When seven peaceful politicians and two social leaders remain in prison for two years without trial, all EU citizens have a problem. When there are repeated signs that judicial independence is impaired and retains authoritarian views, all EU citizens have a problem. When the exercise of basic freedoms is criminalised, all EU citizens have a problem.
This is exactly what is going in Spain, as explained by Amnesty International, la Ligue des Droits de l’Homme and the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions. The three bodies have denounced the situation but Madrid has played deaf, an attitude that one would expect more from Erdogan’s Turkey (by the way, a faithful ally of Spain) than an EU country.
And this is where the EU gets involved. Because Turkey’s friendship with Madrid is not only a matter of good words, but deeds. While Madrid supported its invasion of Rojava, Ankara likened the arrest of Kurdish public officials to the Spanish actions in Catalonia. And what can the EU say? Nothing. Ankara will tell you how independent its judges and police are allowed to be, and that’s that.
Those who will suffer are democratic and national minorities around the world, those who see how the EU internal inaction emboldens (even more) rising autocrats around the world. With an undermined foreign policy, it does not help to elect Josep Borrell as the EU’s new High Representative. It is known how he has been condemned for insider trading by Spanish justice, but attention should be paid to how his criticism of international bodies and institutions that have denounced the Catalan situation will undermine the EU stance on human rights abroad. Can Borrell lecture anyone on human rights when he was a minister in a government that justified jailing political rivals and treating a UN body like the Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions as ignorant?
The EU’s paralysis in Catalonia is also hard felt inside the EU, of course. Can someone really believe that the issues on rule of law in countries like Poland or Hungary can be effectively addressed if the same standards are not applied to Spain? On the contrary, Brussels tacit support for Madrid in its authoritarian stance towards Catalonia is - and will be seen as - a green light for other authoritarian wannabes inside the Union. It’s no coincidence that a couple of weeks after the victory of Momentum in Budapest, its offices were raided by tax officials as denounced by MEP Katalin Cseh. Bad precedents on political persecution of rivals remain precedents.
Sticking with the idea that national constitutional courts have powers beyond basic democratic principles is a recipe for failure and the ushering in of authoritarianism. This is particularly the case when the future of a national minority is at stake and is systematically discriminated by the majority-controlled judiciary .
In this sense, the constant rebukes of the European justice system to Spain are important, both in the case of Catalan exiles and lately with the opinion of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) advocate general on elected MEPs Oriol Junqueras, Carles Puigdemont and Toni Comin, are very relevant. The ECJ has the responsibility to protect democratic rights in the EU by allowing them to become MEPs, as I argued in a previous Euronews op-ed. Otherwise, what kind of democracy would we be living in? On this too, the Brussels-bubble has been dangerously on silence mode, or worse, in the case of the hierarchy of the European Parliament, actively working to suppress the rights of its own elected members.
And so, Europe is on a democratic slippery slope. To protect political allies, many European democrats are silencing clear violations of fundamental rights in Catalonia while the Commission rejects all involvement. It will have consequences, internally and externally. When a new crisis comes and the Far-Right consolidates itself across Europe, Spain will not be the last EU country to jail political rivals. There is a Catalan canary in the EU democratic coalmine and it is choking. Who knows who will be next.
Aleix Sarri i Camargo is an advisor on International Affairs to the President of Catalonia, the former European election campaign manager of Carles Puigdemont and a former MEP assistant.
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