On October 1, 2017, the people of Spain’s semi-autonomous region of Catalonia went to the polls for a referendum. The question at hand was whether or not the region would remain a part of Spain or declare its independence.
The referendum elicited a furious response from the Spanish government, which dispatched thousands of police officers in an attempt to suppress the vote. According to the Catalan government, about 1,000 would-be voters were injured in the crackdown, as officers fired rubber bullets into crowds and beat civilians with batons near polling stations.
In total, more than 90 percent of those who were able to cast a ballot voted in favor of independence. Madrid, however, refused to recognize the results, arguing the referendum was illegitimate and illegal under the Spanish constitution.
Now, 12 members of the former Catalan government who organized the referendum await a verdict in a criminal trial after being charged with crimes including rebellion, sedition and misuse of public funds, which carry a prison sentence of up to 25 years.
Leaders in Catalonia – which has a distinct culture and identity dating back for millennia – have denounced the Spanish government’s decision to handle the referendum as a criminal manner rather than a political issue.
This week, The Globe Post spoke to Catalan Foreign Minister Alfred Bosch about the trial and the future of the movement for the region’s self-determination.
Q: The trial of 12 Catalan separatists on charges related to the 2017 referendum has concluded and the world is anxiously awaiting a verdict. How did you feel about the proceedings and are you optimistic about the outcome?
Bosch: Well, of course, we don’t know what judge will decide on that. We know that anytime from now until the end of this year, we will probably have the verdict. Anything could happen. We are afraid that the sentences could be very heavy because the charges are very heavy. They’re asking up to 25 years in jail for the leading accused person, Oriol Junqueras, who was the vice president to the former Catalan government.
Now, let me please stress the point that these people are democrats. They were elected there. They were part of a legitimate and legal government, according to the constitutional framework in Spain. And they were not pushing for independence. They’re not being judged for proclaiming independence. They’re being judged for calling for a referendum and organizing a referendum. That’s the accusation.
To deal with that in a criminal court, to start with, is a huge mistake. It’s a huge, historic mistake because you’re actually putting democracy and the vote – you’re taking it to court. So we are democrats before we are pro-independence republicans (republicans in the European sense).
Now, if they do get heavy sentences, that will not make things easier. It will make them much worse for sure. It will be harder to establish any kind of talks, to engage in negotiations with the kingdom of Spain to see what the outcome can be. We think the outcome has to be democratic and there has to be a political solution to this.
So let me please say that from my point of view, of the present Catalan government and as legitimate, legal and elected successors to the previous government, many of whom are either in jail or in exile, we think this is not not the right course. It’s not even intelligent for the Spanish government to engage in this instead of just sitting around the table and talking.
Q: Nine of the 12 defendants have been charged with rebellion, a charge which requires the prosecution to prove they revolted “violently and publicly.” Do you believe that the only violence that took place on the day of the referendum was at the hands of the Spanish police?
Bosch: Well, it’s obvious, but it’s not me who is saying that. Just look at the footage. Look at the TV coverage. All the broadcasters in the world were there. There was not one single image of the voters or of the Catalan government who was calling for the vote – not even one single image of violence on their part.
On the other hand, you did have police brutality on defenseless, unarmed civilians. Elderly ladies, women being pulled by the hair. You had the officers there kicking people. You had the military police being brought in and just cracking people’s heads.
So I would say it’s just obvious. And the world knows about this. So that was another enormous mistake. You don’t hit unarmed, defenseless civilians. Citizens who want to vote about their future. I think that’s not right.
Q: What has the reaction of different world leaders been to the trial and to the issue of Catalan independence more broadly? When you travel around Europe and the world, what kind of reactions have you seen from different leaders?
Bosch: What we’ve seen is a shift in public opinion. In fact, there’s a survey you can consult from the Elcano Institute, which is a Spanish Institute headed by the King. So it’s not suspicious of being close to us. They have detected that public opinion in Europe has shifted towards a favorable position and opinion on Catalonia, on the self-determination of Catalonia, and even the prospect of an independent Catalonia.
That’s a survey, which has been done in major European countries over four years. Opinion has shifted in favor of the democratic solution and finding a way out of the conflict by voting and by people deciding it. I like to link this with [Thomas] Jefferson’s phrase, when he said that the world belongs to the living, not to the dead. It’s the living who should decide about their political environment and about the future in which they want to live. We firmly believe in that. And that’s what we see. That’s what public opinion in Europe, and I would see the world at large, tends to think.
We’ve been receiving favorable statements from politicians in Europe, from academics, intellectuals, etc. We’ve seen it in France, Britain, Italy, Germany. We’ve seen parliaments passing motions. And now, of course, it’s also in the European Parliament because three elected [Members of the European Parliament] were voted in by two million Catalan citizens, and they can’t take up their seats because the Spanish government blocked that.
The European courts will have to decide what should happen now. These people who were elected are either in jail or in exile. So it raises a question about whether the European Parliament is sovereign and whether it’s European citizens, who freely elect their representatives – people who have not been convicted and so should be presumed innocent and are liable, obviously, to be elected because they were accepted in the lists which people could vote in the polling stations.
So it’s all over the place, although it’s true that governments in the world tend to stick together because they have common interests. But as far as public opinion, political opinion and published opinion by the media, we’re receiving a very, very favorable response. It’s actually considered right now more as an issue of human rights and political rights rather than a question of, “these people want to break away from somewhere.” In Catalonia, the society as a whole also sees it increasingly in that light.
The fact is we have more of a civil rights movement than one of those populist movements in Europe. It’s people who don’t want to live in a cage. They just want to decide about their future. This is a progressive and very optimistic movement of people who would like to decide which place they want to occupy in Europe, without leaving the European project.
Q: Josep Borrell, the Spanish foreign minister, was recently nominated by EU leaders as the bloc’s foreign affairs chief. He says that Catalan overseas missions are secessionist instruments. Do you worry that his nomination for that position could negatively affect your work?
Bosch: Well, he has to be scrutinized by the hearings in the European Parliament before he takes up that position. So we’ll see what happens. We’re not worried about that, but it’s obvious that he is worried. He’s been saying more than once that we are holding a campaign against him. There’s no need to hold a campaign when is involved in a couple of scandals.
One of them is financial – using his influence and as a stakeholder in a big company called Abengoa. A few years ago, he was accused of using this influence and negotiating shares. Right now, he is also under scrutiny related to what you were saying because there is evidence that’s appeared in the press about him spying and ordering follow-ups and surveillance of our representatives in the Catalan delegations abroad.
The New York delegation – I’m sitting here talking to you – and the problem is that these people, according to the press, have been followed up by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Spain. Also, all those who to talk to us, including foreign citizens, members of parliament, the president of the Welsh Assembly of Consumers, people in Germany and the U.K. and Switzerland, journalists, etc., are being spied on by the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs to see what we’re talking about.
Now, there is nothing to hide. I can explain to Mr. Borrell what we’re doing. But we want them to explain because obviously he doesn’t feel comfortable. He’s very uneasy about what has been surfacing. I think he should clarify to people in the European Parliament in these hearings when he has an opportunity to do so, what kind of work he’s been engaging in. Especially if he wants to be the man in charge of foreign policy in the European Commission.
Q: The President of Government of Catalonia, Quim Torra, will face charges over his refusal to remove yellow ribbons from government buildings. What is your reaction to the charges against him?
Bosch: It’s really quite ridiculous that he might be forced to step down for allowing banners and yellow ribbons to appear on balconies. In Catalonia, yellow ribbons are a sign, as they are in the [U.S.], of the wish to have people come back home. It refers to prisoners in jail for organizing the referendum – members of the previous government.
Obviously, we would like those people to come back home. They’re our predecessors. My own predecessor in foreign affairs in the Catalan administration is in jail. So obviously we would like him and all of the rest to come back home. They are being judged in a criminal court when the only thing they can be accused of is setting up a vote.
So the whole thing is bizarre and quite outrageous. We believe that an elected president, be it even an autonomous government in Spain, should not be forced to step down just because he hangs a symbol of goodwill from a balcony. I think that that’s completely disproportionate.
Q: Writing on The Globe Post opinion page, a critic of the independence movement said the trial of the 12 separatists has “been an act of self-defense by one of the world’s twenty full democracies against what was a 21st-century coup perpetrated by a wealthy elite.” What’s your response to that criticism?
Bosch: I don’t see how charging people with criminal charges can be seen as an act of self-defense. hey have arguments. Let’s hear to them. Let’s talk about them. We’re asking for dialogue. We want dialogue with the Spanish government – to sit around the table and talk about the future and see how we can reach a political settlement, which must be democratic.
The people must decide because this is about people and this is about how people want to organize their future. It makes no sense, in fact, I insist that it’s a big, historic mistake to start hitting people in the head, to start caging people and shutting them down in jail. That will only spark of bigger reactions.
So that’s self-defense? What they’re accomplishing is exactly the opposite, because putting people in jail and condemning them with up to 25 years behind bars is something which will make the pro-independence movement grow. So if the Spanish state and the government want to be clever with us, I think they should do exactly the opposite, which just sitting down, talking, trying to find a settlement through dialogue and trying to seduce millions of Catalans who are now thinking of independence as a way out of this situation.
It’s not that people want strange things. It’s that a government probably doesn’t respond adequately to what people are asking for. So I think that the best self-defense in the case of the Spanish government, which wants to be democratic and open, is to try to seduce people and Catalonia and telling them, look, we can find an arrangement, we propose this and that, instead of clashing with the people and locking up their leaders.
I think that’s the wrong message. It’s a completely wrong message to give. It’s exactly the opposite.
Q: After a verdict is reached in the trial, where does the movement for self-determination go from there?
Bosch: Once you get people in jail with heavy sentences – if that’s what finally happens – obviously, we go from one stage to another. We go from asking for a Catalan republic to asking for civil rights, for respect of human rights. Look, the United Nations, through its working group on arbitrary detention, has already said that this is wrong, that the prisoners should be released, that the Spanish government should engage in talks, compensations should be found and an independent investigation on this should be commenced.
Special rapporteurs from the United Nations have also asked for dialogue and for a political arrangement and taking this out of the courts, stopping this punishment, stopping this crackdown and trying to talk about the future in a civilized manner. That’s what I want and that’s what the Catalan government, which I represent, wants.
So we’re fully behind democracy, fully behind dialogue and fully behind a political settlement. Because we need to show the people that we’re clever politicians and that we’re caring for them. I think the last thing anybody should do is organizing a backlash, punishing, censoring and trying to block any democratic solution to the problem.
More on the Subject
Beyond Independence: Democracy is Real Test in Spain’s Catalonia Trial