In English Voices From Spain

Imprisoned politicians, not political prisoners

Photo by Eugene Triguba on Unsplash

Originally published in Spanish: “Políticos presos, no presos políticos”. Javier Cercas. El País.

12th April 2018

Throughout the last few days there have been protests in German public opinion regarding the recent arrest in Germany of the former regional president of Catalonia, Charles Puigdemont. However, it seems to me impossible to understand his arrest without first asking what happened last autumn in Catalonia. The short answer is that the nationalist regional government attempted to break up a democratic state in order for part of it to secede through a coup (or to be precise, through what I would call ‘a failed attempt at a postmodern civilian self-coup’). What follows is my attempt at a longer answer.

Towards the end of the seventies, with the end of Franco’s dictatorship and the dawn of the democratic era, Spain organized into 17 devolved regions, each roughly equivalent to a German Land–a system most specialists currently place among the most decentralized on the globe. Catalonia is one such devolved region, boasting a language and culture of its own, like Galicia and the Basque Country, and ranking among the wealthiest territories in the nation. Ever since the birth of the democratic regime, Catalonian government–with exclusive powers in key areas such as education and police forces, and very broad ones in all other domains–has remained almost uninterruptedly under conservative nationalist control. Throughout this time, the nationalist right has engaged in surreptitious, painstaking, disloyal attempts not only at nation building, but also at state building. Yet despite such efforts, secessionists never managed to rally more than 20% of the vote–at least not until 2012, when the nationalist right decided to join arms with them three years into the economic downturn.

There were multiple reasons for this change, but two stand out. The first was the Catalonian government’s refusal to take responsibility for their mismanagement of the crisis, choosing instead to blame the central government in Madrid. The second was the need to distract the public from the ocean of corruption engulfing them. The truth is that in late 2012 the Catalonian government devised a secessionist plan which they implemented using their vast government resources and acting in the name of democracy, despite a total disregard for democratic norms which in subsequent years led to systematic action in violation of the law and of mandates from the nation’s highest courts.

Finally, on 6 and 7 September 2017, the secessionists held a highly irregular session in the regional Parliament–a shameful session with the chamber half-empty and hardly any debate allowed–in order to pass two bills. According to the legislative body’s own legal counsel, these laws implied a de facto repeal of the Catalonian statute of autonomy (the region’s basic piece of legislation after the Spanish Constitution) as well as a violation of the Spanish Constitution and international law, which only recognises the right to self-determination–understood as a right to secession–for colonial territories or in cases of human rights violations. In short, the two laws sought to turn the democratic legal framework upside down in order to proclaim the Catalonian Republic and leave us Catalonians ‘at the mercy of a wholly unrestrained power’, as the Constitutional Court put it upon striking down the first of the two bills.

This flagrant attack on the rule of law, conducted in plain sight in the face of the Spanish government’s perplexed powerlessness, is what I call an attempted coup. The term might seem inadequate to those who have forgotten that the best coups involve no physical violence, precisely because the best coups look nothing like coups. But it will surely sound fitting to those who recall that a coup takes place whenever ‘the legal order of a community is nullified and replaced by a new order in an illegitimate way’, as Hans Kelsen wrote in his General Theory of Law and State.

Otherwise, what could the words of the Constitutional Court above possibly mean, if not that the Catalonian government attempted to crush democracy? In any event, the result of these outrageous acts was that last September and October were two nightmarish months in Catalonia, during which society teetered on the brink of civil strife and economic ruin, with every major bank and over three thousand companies relocating their headquarters to other regions. Finally, on 27 October, after a fraudulent referendum and a unilateral declaration of independence by the Catalonian Parliament, the central government set into motion article 155 of the Spanish Constitution–taken, incidentally, from the German Constitution–in order to take control of the region and call new elections there. Around the same time, a judge ordered the imprisonment under extremely serious charges of some of those responsible for the shambles, and the head of the regional government fled justice by escaping to Belgium, where he went on to live until his recent arrest in Germany.

This, in short, is what happened in Catalonia last autumn. It should go without saying that, as the most renowned humanitarian organizations have acknowledged (from Amnesty International to Human Rights Watch), the Catalonian politicians currently in prison are not political prisoners. They are imprisoned politicians, accused–I insist–of the most serious crimes in the Spanish criminal code, starting with the charge of rebellion, which is reserved for attempted coups. That said, I wonder about the opinion of the surely well-meaning Germans who say Puigdemont should not be extradited to Spain. Are they saying he would not have a fair trial because there is no separation of powers in Spain, and thus no rule of law, as modern-day Spain remains an embellished copy of Francoist Spain even after forty years of democracy and thirty-two of EU membership? This is what secessionist propaganda would have one believe, and it is of course utter nonsense. To realise this, one need look no further than this year’s The Economist Intelligence Unit democracy index, according to which there are only nineteen full democracies in the world. Among them, one will find neither France nor Italy nor Japan–not even the United States; instead, one will find Spain at number 19. Would anyone dare to suggest that neither France nor Italy nor Japan nor the United States are democracies, or that they are merely dictatorships in disguise?

Further questions for those Germans protesting Puigdemont’s arrest: are they sure that someone who has systematically and knowingly broken the law, according to a Spanish Supreme Court judge, should not be judged? Do they mean to imply that, in a democracy, elected politicians have the right to commit any outrage and need not respect the rules like any other citizen, because they have been voted in by the people? Do these people have no memory of a twentieth-century German politician who was freely elected and later devoted himself to outrageous acts that ultimately put an end to democracy? Have they forgotten that, in a democracy, the law and democracy itself are one and the same, for the law is an expression of the will of the people which politicians can modify, but not violate? And have they by any chance read the seventy pages in which the Supreme Court judge argues and backs up his case?

 I am not a jurist and will thus offer no opinion on the indictment, nor on whether Puigdemont should be extradited, nor on what crimes he should be extradited for. That is for German judges to decide, and I am sure they will do so conscientiously. I do believe, however, that we are sometimes too quick to form an opinion. Apart from this, I wish only to add that I am a left-wing Europeanist, convinced that a united Europe is the only reasonable utopia ever thought up by Europeans. As such, I am persuaded that the nationalist cocktail served up for years in Catalonia and providing the main ideological fuel for what happened last autumn–a blend of historical victimism, economic self-interest and supremacist narcissism with just a dash of xenophobia–is not only incompatible with the ideals of the left, but absolutely lethal for a united Europe.

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