How the Catalonia Question Caused Blushes for Brussels in Moscow

In a heated face-off Russia reminded the EU that when it comes to imprisoning politicians, it too has form. In Catalonia tensions are coming back to the boil as new elections loom. 

During a visit last week to Moscow Josep Borrell, the EU Minister for Foreign Affairs, received a lesson on the dangers of throwing stones in glass houses. The ostensible purpose behind the visit was to get EU-Russia relations back on track, after years of ratcheting tensions. Borrell also hoped to exert diplomatic pressure on Moscow over the recent imprisonment of opposition leader Alexei Navalny. It was Borrell’s first visit to Moscow and the first of any EU diplomat since 2017. And by all measures it was a resounding failure, and in part due to recent events in Catalonia.

On Sunday, Borrell wrote on his EU blog that his visit had confirmed that “Europe and Russia are drifting apart.” German broadcaster Deutsche Welle said his visit was “perhaps the biggest shambles” in the EU’s short-lived history of international diplomacy. Some are now even calling for Borrell’s resignation.

Tit for Tat

Borrell’s big mistake was to go all the way to Moscow to lambaste the Putin government for its rough treatment of Navalny, which he could have done from the comfort of his own office in Brussels. That rough treatment includes allegedly trying to poison Navalny with a Novichok-type nerve agent. That was in August. After taking ill on an internal flight in Russia, Navalny was taken to Germany, where he spent five months recovering. On January 17, he returned to Russia and was duly arrested for violating parole from a 2014 sentence for embezzlement. Last week, the court sentenced him to two years and eight months in a prison colony.

Borrell called for Navalny’s release and an investigation into his poisoning, neither of which went down well with his hosts. Nor did his allusions to the rule of law, international human rights and respect for the sovereignty of other nations.

The Russian Federation’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov responded by lashing Brussels for its own failings. He called the EU “unreliable” and accused Germany and France of arrogance in their dealings with Russia. Then, he delivered the coup de grace. He accused Brussels of double standards over Spain’s imprisonment of Catalan separatists. And Borrell’s glass house began to shatter.

“I would like to mention three prisoners who were sentenced to ten years of prison for organizing a referendum in Catalonia,” Lavrov said. “Judicial authorities in Germany and Belgium have called on Spanish authorities to cancel these politically motivated rulings*. The Spanish authorities have responded by asserting that Spain has its own judicial system and has urged others to respect its decisions. That’s what we want the West to do in its relations with Russia”.

[*This is not entirely true. Judicial authorities in Germany and Belgium have refused to extradite exiled Catalan politicians to face trail in Spain. Judicial authorities in Belgium recently raised questions about the judicial competence and independence of Spain’s Supreme Court] 

A New Low in EU-Moscow Relations

After the press conference Russia expelled three EU diplomats, from Germany, Poland and Sweden, for allegedly participating in protests against Navalni’s imprisonment. Germany, Poland and Sweden responded in kind, by expelling three Russian diplomats from their territory. Rather than getting EU-Moscow relations back on track, Borrell’s visit drove them to a new low, which will no doubt delight hawks in Washington and NATO. 

Spain’s Foreign Minister, Arancha González Laya, added insult to injury by asserting, apparently with a straight face, that “in Spain there are no political prisoners, there are imprisoned politicians “. This invited a stinging riposte from Maria Zakhàrova, the director of the Information and Press Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation:

“I now have a new democratic idol, this time a woman: Spain’s Minister of Foreign Affairs of Spain Arancha González Laya. Commenting on Sergei Lavrov’s words about the situation surrounding Catalan separatists, she literally said the following: ‘in Spain there are no political prisoners, there are imprisoned politicians.’

Nine politicians and activists, including former Catalan vice president Oriol Junqueras, are currently in jail. They are serving sentences of between nine to 13 years. As Laya pointed out, with a touch of pride, they are in better conditions than Navalni, having been granted the lowest prison category. But they are still in prison.

Catalonia’s last three elected presidents — Artur Mas, Carles Puigdemont and Quim Torra — have all been banned from holding public office, either during their tenure or just after their time as presidents. Puigdemont, who organized the self-determination referendum of 2017, is in self-imposed exile, together with a number of his ministerial colleagues.    

Even one of Laya’s senior ministerial colleagues contradicted her claim that Spain is a fully functioning democracy. Pablo Iglesias, the leader of the left-wing Podemos party who is currently serving as Spain’s second vice-president, said:

“There is no situation of full political and democratic normality in Spain when one of the two leaders of the main parties that govern Catalonia is in jail while the other is in (self-imposed exile) Brussels. In a situation of democratic normality, political conflicts are managed democratically. When the judicial authorities and the security forces have to intervene, it is a sign that there has been a failure of politics.”

It’s not just Madrid whose reputation has suffered as a consequence. The fact that Brussels appointed Borrell as its chief diplomat despite the central role he played in Spain’s post-referendum crackdown on Catalonia means that every time the EU wants to send a message on human rights, it risks facing ridicule. Borrell’s appointment was also controversial given his conviction, in 2018, of insider trading. The resulting scandal triggered calls for his resignation as Spain’s then-Foreign Minister. But he resisted those calls and in 2020 was bumped up to the EU Commission.

New Elections in Catalonia

With regional elections scheduled for next Sunday, tensions are once again bubbling to the surface in Catalonia. The elections themselves are mired in controversy. The reason they’re taking place is that the High Court of Justice of Catalonia banned Catalonia’s former separatist president Quim Torra from holding public office after he refused to remove a banner promoting independence from the Palau de la Generalitat, the seat of the Catalan government. That was in 2019.

In January this year, as Covid cases surged after the Christmas holidays, Catalonia’s regional parliament voted to postpone the elections until May on health grounds. But the courts intervened to overturn the decision. 

Many people in Catalonia suspect that the senior party in the minority left-wing coalition in Madrid, the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE), hopes to capitalise on what is likely to be a low voter turnout, due to widespread fears about catching the Covid-19 virus. If the PSOE can win the most votes and cobble together a coalition of unionist parties, it will finally wrest back control of the region from the separatist coalition. 

To boost its chances, PSOE decided to relieve Salvador Illa of his post as Spain’s Heath Minister, in the midst of a pandemic, so that he could run as candidate for the Catalan Socialist Party (PSC) in the upcoming elections. By fielding a high-profile figure, the party hopes to attract enough moderate anti-independence votes to emerge as victor. 

But the strategy could backfire. Although support for independence has sagged in the last two years, it still remains solidly above 40% (43%). Illa has not helped his chances by claiming that most Catalan people do not want a referendum. This is an outright falsehood. Polls have consistently shown that roughly four-fifths of Catalan voters support holding a referendum. Even among voters of his own party, PSC, an overwhelming majority (61%) support a referendum.

That doesn’t mean they want independence; many just want their voices to be heard. But Spain’s Constitution bans secession. As such, a legal referendum is out of the question. And given the scale and intensity of opposition to Catalan secession in the rest of Spain, there’s little chance of that changing any time soon.  

Stuck in a Rut, Riven Down the Middle

In the meantime, politics in Catalonia remains stuck in a rut as the all-but-impossible dream of independence dominates the political agenda. There’s little time or space for other concerns. That includes the healthcare system, which was intentionally weakened by the previous Rajoy government as part of its covert machinations against Catalonia’s pro-independence government and which is now being put through the grinder by the Covid-19 pandemic. Even on the rare occasion that Catalonia’s regional government does come up with legislation aimed at actually helping people, it is invariably struck down by Spain’s courts. 

Catalonia itself remains riven down the middle. The Congress in Madrid has voted to reopen dialogue after the elections in Catalonia. But a lasting settlement will require big compromises that neither side seems willing to make. Even if the negotiations were to bear fruit, any resulting settlement would probably be overturned by the courts.

That’s exactly what happened to the Estatut of 2006, which granted a greater degree of self-government to Catalonia. In 2010, Spain’s highly politicized Supreme Court, at the urging of the People’s Party, annulled many of the articles of the already diluted Statute, effectively stripping the agreement of any meaning and giving Catalonia’s independence movement its biggest boost in decades. 

Eleven years on, Catalonia and Spain are still at an impasse. My biggest fear is that without any way out of that impasse, social cohesion and harmony could end up paying the price of political failure. 

Violent clashes between rival political groups are becoming increasingly common. With the highest levels of youth unemployment in the EU, Spain is a fertile breeding ground for political extremism. The far-right anti-immigrant party Vox is on course to enter the Catalan parliament for the first time. According to the latest polls, it could win as many as 11 seats, which will be enough to place it fourth in the pecking order. And that should be a major cause for concern, especially given Spain’s not-so-distant history.


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  1. timbers

    Finally. Very much like seeing Russia when she treats the Europeans with the level of respect they deserve. Merkel must be verklempt – if she even cares at all. Maybe some loud denunciations of Russia with simultaneous quite approvals of final completions of Nordstream II is in order. Because after all, President Biden isn’t going to roll over like Trump did when Russia whips out it’s most deadly poison in the world that nobody ever seems to die from. If Russia doesn’t behave itself, Biden might unless some grounded F-35’s on her. Then the whole world would see our airplanes are almost as good as our vaccine rollouts.

    Slowly…the US might actually becoming what the Communist Chinese used to call us – a Paper Tiger.

      1. Skip Intro

        It does exist, and has been replicated in international labs. Presently it is mostly mythical in application, and used as a ‘fingerprint’ for Putin. Like Crowdstrike’s lazy go-to APT Cozy Bear hacks, which are also internationally available, Novichok has developed a professional following of ‘experts’ who can find it whenever Russia needs to be blamed for something. At this point, either of those claims are a huge tell that one is dealing with lazy neocon contractors recycling their materials.

        1. Alex Cox

          And one of the inventors of Novichok, Vil Mirzayanov, has lived in the United States since 1995. So if the Blob ever needed any ‘new stuff’, it wouldn’t have far to go.

          1. Polar Socialist

            In a way MIrzayanov indeed invented Novitchok. He had pretty much nothing to do with the research of the neurotoxins, though. He was an environmental chemist tasked to monitor that nothing was leaked to environment from the research facility, but he did participate in the research nor did he know what was researched.

            Nobody in the research program ever called the tested compounds Novichoks (I think their name for the project was Foliant). That name was made up by Mirzayanov when he wrote about the dire environmental situation around the chemical weapons facilities. He was charged for treason, but the court came to conclusion that he had not told anything that wasn’t public knowledge already and that some of the stuff he had just made up, so they just fired him. He later published more about Novichok, even giving half a dozen formulas, but none of those work.

            The purpose of the actual project was to come up with safe and very lethal neurotoxin to be used in artillery shells. It had to be lethal, because the explosion of the shell destroys most of the compound. And if it’s very lethal, it has to be extremely safe to be useful for the military so it doesn’t accidentally kill own troops.

            They ended up with three chemical compounds, none which was lethal enough, liquid enough or safe enough. So they abandoned the project by the end of the Soviet Union, and reported all compounds to the OPCW. It’s these OPCW formulas laboratories around the world have been replicating.

        2. Harry

          Apparently low cholinesterase levels are an indicator of Novichok poisoning. Sadly other things can also give you low cholinesterase levels, like taking lithium or a variety of recreational and clinical drugs. Still, one might expect not dying to be a little odd when you are talking about something which can be used as a WMD.

    1. Synoia

      “verklempt” has a strong association with the Nationalist Party in ZA, the champions of Apartheid.

      I’d not use it to describe a European Politician. On reflection, I’d not use it at all.

  2. John A

    Why do western commentators insist on describing Navalny as the ‘opposition leader’? He is at best an anti-corruption journalist and in terms of political support polls at 1-2% at most.

    1. Harry

      Usually they use the opposition leader to give the impression he is the main main, while also being able to say they meant only to identify that he is an opposition leader – “the opposition leader Alexei Navalny was taken to hospital complaining of ….”

  3. Diego M

    Would you say those who trespassed Congress nonviolently to express their political opinions are political prisoners and victims of repression?

    Unlike Spain, the US is not considered a full democracy anymore (e.g. by The Economist). Is that because of political prisoners, or rather because of coup attempts?

    1. Yves Smith

      The problem is they didn’t enter non-violently. The level of violence may not have been high compared to some other demonstrations, but smashing window to gain entry and beating a cop to death with a fire extinguisher does not qualify as non-violent.

      Plus when they entered they seemed more interested in selfies and trophies than using the opportunity to deliver a manifesto.

      1. Diego M

        Not *all* of them entered violently, did they? But all of them are charged!

        There were episodes of low-level violence related to the Catalan referendum, too, including attacks on police cars, policemen, police barracks and non-separatist civilians as well as one hate-motivated murder.

        Both the Catalan referendum and the invasion of Congress were mostly peaceful, though, despite fights against the police in *BOTH* cases.

        1. Alexandre Miquel Young i Aliaga

          Who do you want to fool Diego? The only violence the whole world saw were the brutal actions carried out by the Spanish police against peaceful voters who did not offer any resistance. I was a witness to this. You probably just believe the nationalist Spanish media who did their best to censure the images that the international media were broadcasting.

          1. St Jacques

            More than ten people died in the yellow jacket protests in France but in Catalonia, after the “‘brutal” police crackdown on the unconstitional referendum held by the regional government, two people spent a night in hospital.

            1. Viscaelpaviscaelvi

              @Diego: I suppose that the attacks on police cars refers to the two police cars that got painted all over and on top of which two of the Catalan leaders stood to address the demonstrators and ask them to put an end to the demonstration to avoid further conflict, action that was described in their court case as violent behaviour and causing damage to a police car and that contributed to their sentences.
              And since we are talking about those cars, the police left some loaded arms in them and left the doors unlocked. But you may think that it was an unfortunate mistake, luckily without consequences…

              @Jacques: the Spanish police had a few hours to do its trick on that day (all police violence ended at about noon, when the images of the repression reached every European government and Madrid started getting calls). The French police, on the contrary, has had months to reach those numbers, with protests that have been more violent.

              What passes for the Spanish left has spent the last three years pretending that the reaction of the Spanish government to the referendum doesn’t have anything to do with a national conflict. Your comments are a clear sign that that supposed left is not going to give up its nationalist illusions.

              We’ll see what colourful diversions you come up with the next time.
              Because there will be a next time.

              1. St Jacques

                What would happen if a US state government broke the constitution to hold a referendum on independence against a Supreme Court ruling?

                btw Catalonia is bitterly divided by the issue. The independists do not have a clear majority in public support and only hold a slender majority in the Catalan parliament because the voting system favours the seperatist strongholds over metropolitan Barcelona.

  4. The Rev Kev

    Seems like Russia is getting jack with the way that they are being treated. And having an incoming President Biden basically labeling them an enemy did not help so now it looks like they are going to start fighting back in order to be listened to properly. At about the same time they were ripping EU Minister Borrell a new one, the Russian Foreign Ministry released a video which you can see on their twitter account. Western countries have been railing against Russian police brutality to Navalny supporters so the Russians put together an eight minute video showing by comparison the police brutality on the part of OSCE countries and the US to their protestors. Here is that link-

  5. DJG, Reality Czar

    Wow. The irony here is that Josep Borrell Fontelles was born in the province of Lleida to a Catalan-speaking family. His name itself is quite Catalan.

    Surely he is aware of what has gone on in Catalunya.

    Wikipedia points out this remarkable detail about his father: Borrell’s father arrived in Spain just before the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War and afterwards he would never leave his village of La Pobla de Segur.[8]

    Which is sourced to another remarkable statement in El País, as reported in 2019: “Según ha explicado, con este gesto quiere hacer un homenaje a su padre, que tras regresar a España y vivir la crueldad de la guerra “ya no quiso salir más de su pueblo del Pirineo”, en referencia a La Pobla de Segur (Lleida).”

    Borrell doesn’t know how fraught the relation of Catalunya and the central government has been? Why did he let himself get blindsided in Russia? This incident is about two steps away from bonehead U.S. Syrian policy, which has consisted of lectures and interference since Syria became independent in the late 1940s.

    1. The Rev Kev

      That’s an interesting link that. Sounds like Navalny is going to be another Greedo from Venezuela. A coupla days ago, I saw a translated interview with one of Navalny’s lieutenants. The interviewer was asking the guy if it was right for he and others like him to call out people to protest on Navalny’s behalf considering the fact that the guy did not actually still live in Russia. The guy had no answer to that.

  6. Susan the other

    Well, I do like this sentence: “Social cohesion and harmony end up paying the price for political failure.” And to carry that thought forward into the abstract: Why not expand politics as a tool for both coming together in a social contract and also breaking back apart as necessary. Instead we write “constitutions” which forbid anybody leaving the “union” as once construed in times and circumstances that no longer apply. And etc. Politics itself needs the flexibility and actual effectiveness to resolve social grievances which we know beyond a doubt will always evolve and force change, because unless politics can do that, violence becomes everybody’s favorite default position. So, clearly, all societies today need an effective mechanism to achieve social cohesion and harmony. I’d say it’s a 24/7 task. And if Congresses and Parliaments aren’t up to the task, then we need a new mechanism. Especially where the obligation to represent constituents is corrupted and fails immediately.

  7. Ook

    Not to mention that Navalny isn’t even in prison for political crimes, he’s there for breaking parole on a previous conviction for embezzlement.

  8. foxenburg

    February 9, 2021 at 12:32 pm
    “verklempt” has a strong association with the Nationalist Party in ZA, the champions of Apartheid.
    I’d not use it to describe a European Politician. On reflection, I’d not use it at all.”

    A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. I suspect you are confusing verklempt with verkrampte.

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