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.