On March 21, 71 to 20 majority of the elected members in the 135-seat Catalan parliament voted for the immediate freeing of the political prisoners detained by Spanish police.
Representatives who dissented with the declaration of independence, and criticised the former president Puigdemont’s decision, also voted for the release. The news of the former president’s arrest and of a number of elected representatives at the Catalan parliament (Generalitat) didn’t get the limelight in the world media. Certainly, the Crimean and Scottish referendums, to quote two similar and definitely less dramatic cases, have received much more attention although they proceeded without arrests and turmoil.
Apparently, the free press of democratic countries deliberately decided to adopt a low-key and not to mess with the delicate equilibria of EU member states.
According to the New York Times, that incidentally did address the topic, the Madrid government has temporarily won its battle with the arrest of Catalonia’s president, but if Germany had in fact extradited Puigdemont, the separatists would have further strengthened risen their voice. Without the frenzied repression on the part of the Spanish government, the federalist or autonomist option would have been viable and shared by most of the Catalans whose majority is not altogether convinced about pursuing the goal of independence.
You might justify Rajoy’s behavior in point of law and appeal to all possible legal quibbles in Spanish, EU and international law. Nonetheless, the arrest of representatives who have been elected by a large proportion of the citizens (47.5% of the regular regional elections votes and a large majority at the referendum) is shameful for a country and an EU that claim to be democratic.
Can you imagine what an outcry there would be if the same had happened in Russia or Turkey? Moreover, the Catalan independentists and federalists have always acted peacefully, even when they have been deliberately provoked by Guardia Civil, the Spanish police force which was strengthened by and came to be identified with Franco’s dictatorship.
The Basque independence movement and ETA, its terrorist branch, have been intimidating Spanish society and government from 1959 up to a few years ago when a peace deal was eventually signed. Today, the Basque country enjoys almost full fiscal autonomy, much larger than Catalonia’s, although the Spanish government does not recognise the Basque country with the status of a federate state, which would be symbolically decisive.
Isn’t the EU-supported Spanish government acting dangerously? In the opinion of Pardos-Prado – a Professor of Political Science at Oxford University interviewed by the New York Times – the Spanish state is delegating the solution of the Catalan issue to the judges rather than to politicians.
The problem is that all this is happening just when many supporters of the EU are calling for more grassroots and democratic legitimisation and seeking to overcome the current setback to European integration, which is fundamentally due to the bureaucratisation of soulless European institutions.
The EU’s leaders – meaning the Commission, its states’ governments and the stay-behind big lobbies – are blindly proceeding along the cul-de-sac of more bureaucracy and more centralised power, instead of realising that elevated democracy might be a viable way to win back the affection of its disheartened citizens.
The several regional crises in Western EU countries (Germany, France, Italy and the Benelux) who are the core and founders of the European Union, are in addition to other critical situations that have recently attracted the media’s attention such as Brexit, the generalised escalation of populisms, the success of authoritarian and nationalist governments in Hungary and Poland, the strikes and social turmoil in France and the international tension with Russia.
The fear of a possible domino effect, leading to the dissolution of nation states, parallises Brussels and Madrid. Germany has obviously (though not unanimously) refused Spain’s request to extradite Puigdemont on the grounds of rebellion. Nonetheless, some commentators – specifically Christian Mölling – have convincingly argued that “we should not transform Puigdemont’s legal case into a political question”.
Are we really going to be crazy enough to accept that politics must abide by immutable laws which only cleric-like judges are allowed to interpret? Have politicians abdicated their role of legislators and policy-makers? In the textbooks at school we learnt that the people’s consensus is the original source of the legitimacy of law in democracy. You might think that different approaches are more effective – it’s a pity they are not democratic.
The supposedly “illegal referendum” and the ensuing declaration of independence of Catalonia were arguably inappropriate moves, and they have backfired for the Catalans’ long struggle for more autonomy and for the recognition of Catalonia as a federate or possibly as an independent state. Nonetheless, the cornerstone cannot be other than the people’s consensus.
The Catalan crisis should become the starting point for negotiating an institutional reform which transforms Spain into a federation of states. Instead of fearing a domino effect of the several pro-independence and autonomist movements all over Western Europe, the EU might encourage this process in order to foster its own reform towards more democracy and make the subsidiarity principle truly active in every country and each province.
This could be the foundation of a political platform for a European transnational party at the next European Parliament elections in 2019.
The alternative is a Brussels similar to the 15th century Byzantium, whose government was arguing about the sex of angels – or in the case of the EU, the legitimate lengths of cucumbers – while the Turks were already climbing the city walls.