Spain Is Turning the Political Problem of Catalan Independence into a Judicial Issue
As Spain issues European arrest warrants for Catalan independence leaders who are in Belgium, the conflict is becoming a judicial matter when it really should be political, says Sebastian Faber
SHARMINI PERIES: It’s the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. A Belgian judge released the five senior Catalonian officials that exiled themselves in Brussels on October 30th. The judge instructed them not to leave the country without permission and to inform the police of their accommodation. The five are deposed President of Catalonia, Carles Puigdemont as well as Meritxell Serret, Antoni Comin, Luis Puig and Clara Ponsati.
The five fled to Belgium when Spain imposed direct rule over Catalonia, rejecting the results of the October 1st referendum in which a majority voted for independence from Spain. The Spanish government issued a European wide arrest warrant for Puigdemont and the other leadership. They turned themselves in and Puigdemont continues to declare that he will not return to Spain until he is guaranteed a fair trial. On to talk about this with me is Sebastiaan Faber, Professor of Hispanic Studies at Oberlin College, he’s the author of the forthcoming book Memory Battles of the Spanish Civil War. Sebastiaan, thank you so much for joining us today.
SEBASTIAAN FABER: Great to be with you again.
SHARMINI PERIES: Sebastiaan, you were just in Spain just a few days ago and I’m sure you were in the throes of a lot of what’s going on there, but let’s start with why Belgium offered sanctuary to the fleeing Catalonian politicians and why did they choose Belgium as a place to escape to?
SEBASTIAAN FABER: They chose Belgium I think for two reasons: One, because it’s basically the seat of the capital of the European Union, the capital of Belgium, Brussels is also where the European Parliament is and most European institutions. Secondly, I think because Belgium is known to have a legal system that is very protective of the rights of the accused. Maybe a third reason is that Belgium is also a multi-lingual state and for somebody who feels that their language and culture are not being respected in the Spanish state, they might be expecting some measure of sympathy from, for example, the Flemish among whom themselves there is an independence movement.
For example, when Puigdemont was given the choice, as people are in Belgium, to choose between a French speaking or a Dutch speaking judge, or Flemish speaking judge, he picked the Flemish speaking judge, even though he himself doesn’t speak Dutch but he does speak French. Likely in part because a Flemish speaking judge may be more sympathetic to the plight of the Catalans as they are trying to fight for their rights and their independence in Spain.
SHARMINI PERIES: Sebastiaan, what is the role of the European Union in this crisis? No European state has recognized Catalonian independence as yet. Now the EU is collaborating with Spain in terms of executing on the arrest warrant, also the EU’s role is to represent the interests of the Nation State who are member states. Considering all this, will the European Union respond adequately to the Catalonian independence struggle?
SEBASTIAAN FABER: I don’t think so. In the big picture, I don’t think the EU will act differently. They will continue to respect the sovereignty of the Spanish state and the right of the Spanish state to take control over Catalonia, and they will continue to see Catalonia’s attempt to achieve independence as unconstitutional and as unacceptable. At the same time, though, there is increasing pressure on the EU leadership and the EU Parliament to check the way that Spain is dealing with the situation, particularly the way in which it’s taking advantage of the crisis over Catalonia to curb constitutional and civil rights in Spain.
A letter went out a couple of days ago signed by 188 public intellectuals all over the West, including some members of the European Parliament, calling attention to the slippery slope on which the Spanish government has entered in terms of civil right and constitutional rights. They basically stated in the letter that the Spanish government is invoking one article of its constitution, article 155, which allows it to impose direct rule, to trample many other constitutional rights, including their right to assembly, their right to free speech and things like that. There is pressure on the European Parliament, increasing pressure on the Spanish government related to the way that they are dealing with this crisis.
SHARMINI PERIES: Now, as far as I know, Puigdemont continues to appeal to an international audience for public support. He just penned an article in the Guardian, which is asking people to support the movement, but also that he says he will not return to Spain until he gets a fair trial. What is he actually accused of? Do you think he will receive a fair trial if he is extradited to Spain from Brussels or from Belgium?
SEBASTIAAN FABER: There is a number of issues with the way in which the Spanish government has dealt with the situation. The most overarching issue is that it has turned what is a political problem into a judicial problem. It has made the courts do the work, the dirty work, that the government should have been doing, which is to sit down with the Catalonian government and the find a solution that is acceptable to both parties and that will guarantee a sustainable role for Catalonia over the long-term within the Spanish state.
By turning it into a judicial problem, the Spanish government has also basically shown the extent to which the separation of powers in Spain is not quite that. There are issues with the court itself that the Attorney General in Spain has appealed to, to deal with the case, which is the National Criminal Court. There are issues with the charges brought against the Catalonian Government. Those charges are three. They are rebellion, sedition and embezzlement or misuse of public funds.
What Puigdemont is saying is that he doesn’t believe that this particular Spanish court, the National Criminal Court and its relationship to the Attorney General, that is to the government, is kosher. He is claiming that if tried by this court, given the judges of the court, given their relationship to the national government, he will not receive a fair trial. It’s actually up to the Belgian judiciary at this point, to the Belgian judge to weigh and to evaluate the charges brought against Puigdemont and the four other ministers, to see whether an extradition or at least a delivery back to Spain is warranted or not.
Puigdemont is trying to do two things. He’s trying to sow a seed of doubt among international opinion about the workings of the Spanish judicial branch, and he is trying to insert another judicial filter into the process. By having the Belgian courts also evaluate the charges brought against him, he might be able to have some of those charges thrown out.
For one, the charge of rebellion and sedition are not listed as charges that would warrant extradition, so it may well be that through this process the only charge that’s held up in this process between Belgium and Spain is the charge of misuse of public funds, which is a way less severe charge than rebellion or sedition would be.
The reason that rebellion and sedition are doubtful is because, what Catalonia tried to do is to become independent of the Spanish government. Rebellion and sedition really have to do with trying to overthrow or undermine the central government and through violent means no less. It’s really the questions whether an attempt to become independent through a referendum can be defined at the same level as a violent overthrow of a national government as, for example, in a military coup.
SHARMINI PERIES: Sebastiaan, while the Catalonian leadership is undergoing all of this in Brussels and there are many people also who have gone to Brussels to help and be supportive of the leadership there, what is happening to the Catalonian leadership and, of course, the upcoming elections in which there are a number of parties involved in making that happen? Give us a little more detail of that.
SEBASTIAAN FABER: In some ways, the whole show between Puigdemont and his ministers in Madrid, is really a distraction from what, I think, really important at a deeper level, which is the rise and fall and the different alignments of political parties, both in Catalonia and in Spain as a whole. Catalonia is facing elections in a very short term. The parties, this week, have had to announce whether they will join in coalitions or not. There was a question whether the coalition that won the elections in 2015, which was built around the notion of independence, whether it’s going to be repeated. Looks like it’s not going to be repeated.
What Puigdemont’ adventures in Belgium have managed to do is, yet again, to displace the focus of political discussion from corruption, social policies, economic inequalities, economic policies, poverty, marginalization, all those issues that were so important in the wake of the 2008, 2009 crisis. Those have all been displaced and everything is now, yet again, about independence or not. Are you with Madrid? Or are you with Catalonia.
What that’s done is that it has forced frames onto the local parties that are more beneficial to some than to others. They are beneficial to Puigdemonts’ party for one, which is a center right, regular center right European party, neoliberal in outlook, pro-business and fairly conservative in social policy.
It’s also beneficial to the left republicans in Catalonia who have always been strongly in favor of independence and whose leader is now in jail in Madrid. It has really been bad in political terms for the non-pro independence left, particularly Ada Colaus’ party. Ada Colau is the mayor of Barcelona, and the Catalan branch of Podemos, the new anti-austerity party in Spain.
Those parties are now seeing drops in the polls. They have split over the issue, the Secretary General of the Podemos Catalonia reigned from his post, actually he was forced to resign, and went ahead and funded his own new party. There’s a real division among the left and public disagreements about the issue of independence for Catalonia.
Moving to the rest of Spain. What we see happening is that, at a time when the corruption of political parties and political leaders was for a long time one of the main concerns of the public, that is now dropping. The issue of Catalonia is moving up as a concern. This is extremely beneficial to the party most affected by the corruption, which is the ruling party. Rajoy’s Party, the Partido Popular.
Just today, the leader of an investigation into one of the many corruption rings involved in the governing party testified to a Congressional Committee and to a Parliamentary Commission in Madrid, and he said, he confirmed that the current Prime Minister of Spain, Rajoy, received black money. Received extra pay from what has now been confirmed was a longstanding set of shadow books maintained by the ruling party that served to receive kickbacks in return for major public contracts, for major public infrastructural projects. This is a major piece of news that, yet again, is being snowed under by all the to do around Catalonia, Puigdemont, the trial, the people in prison et cetera.
There is a way, in which the standoff over Catalonia, real as it is, and important as it is and real as its effects are on the population serves as a distraction that, in the end, will only help to divide the left and to strengthen what people call the regime of 1978, the two party system that was set up in the 70’s and 80’s and is now fighting to survive and it’s succeeding in that survival right now and the Catalonia issue is helping it.
SHARMINI PERIES: Now, in terms of Rajoy and Madrid determined to control the outcomes of the upcoming election in Catalonia, what can we expect in the coming month in terms of the preparations and people’s desire to vote and the turnout, as well as if there’s going to be any infringement on their rights coming up?
SEBASTIAAN FABER: I think, regardless of what happens the turnout will be very large, even though normally elections are held on Sundays, this election is going to be held on a Thursday, I believe. Turnout is expected to be very large. Mobilization on both sides is gonna be expected to be really strong. Like I said, because it’s all framed around pro-independence or against independence the parties in the middle, which are mostly the left parties will suffer.
In terms of the attempts of the central government to influence the election, I think those will come down in two ways. One will be strictly legal, there’s a real attempt on the part of Madrid to not only judicialized the issue, but to actually criminalize political ideas. There is different spokespeople from the central government that have suggested that parties that favor independence should be illegal. We’ve already seen that the political leadership that pushed for independence is now in jail and is being persecuted in the court. There is a real attempt to criminalize politics as a way to reduce the power of the opposition or to eliminate the opposition. That’s what the letter to the European Union among other things addressed.
The second way in which the Partido Popular is going to try to influence the elections is to already anticipate what it will do if a particular outcome occurs. Now, several spokespersons of the central government have said that should a pro-independence parties yet again win a majority in the Catalan parliament, like they did in 2015, then they wouldn’t hesitate a moment and reapply Article 155. That is we impose, yet again, central rule. There is a way in which the Madrid government is trying to influence the elections by anticipating an outcome and then indicating that an outcome will be useless anyway, because they’ll start all over again.
SHARMINI PERIES: One final point, Sebastiaan. I understand that the Mayor in Catalan has been deposed. What does that mean? Does this mean that they cannot contest in the next elections?
SEBASTIAAN FABER: The next elections will be for the regional parliament, they won’t be for municipal governments, so in that sense it doesn’t matter. This is one of those tactics, you could call them scare tactics, by judicializing and criminalizing politics, the central government is trying to cow political leaders, among them mayors. While at the same time, creating what is basically a judicial nightmare because all of the, I think, 700 mayors are being deposed. That’s 700 depositions that are clogging up the Catalan judiciary. All of those people have to go to a court and declare. It’s completely unmanageable in practical terms. In political terms it’s, yet again, an attempt on the central government to force Catalan public opinion, to force Catalan democracy into the mold that they would like to see. In the end, this will not work. In the end, they will only create more resistance, showing, yet again, that to whatever extent what they propose as solutions, are solutions that can only be really short-term solutions, it will only make the problem worse, in the end.
SHARMINI PERIES: Alright, Sebastiaan. I thank you so much for joining us.
SEBASTIAAN FABER: Absolutely.
SHARMINI PERIES: I hope to have you back fairly soon, I think. Particularly, in the run-up to the upcoming election and also to elaborate more on the corruption scandal unfolding beneath all of this. Thank you so much.
SEBASTIAAN FABER: Anytime.
SHARMINI PERIES: Thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.