A few years ago, I saw rival groups of football fans displaying Palestinian and Israeli flags at an Old Firm match. Done more to provoke the opposition, than show support for the country whose flag they were flying, doubtless they had as little interest in Middle Eastern affairs as they had knowledge of the religions supposedly represented by their respective teams.
Now, there are parallels with the situation in Catalonia where supporters and opponents of Scottish independence are lining up to cheer and jeer from afar. But, the issues in Catalonia are far more serious than simple partisan flag-waving or cheering, as they fundamentally affect the European society we want to see – whether we’re in or out of the EU.
To be fair, there are committed people in Scotland who have taken the cause of Catalonia to their heart and campaign for its independence. I know many of them and fully respect their integrity on this issue, which is longstanding. Likewise, there are others sympathetic to Spanish efforts to preserve their state’s unity and have argued that for quite some while, and again I exculpate them.
However, there are now groups on both sides who have previously shown little interest in Spain or Catalonia and who have simply jumped on a bandwagon, seeing this as a surrogate battle for Scottish independence. Some tweets from elected politicians have been far from funny, but frankly puerile and contemptible, mocking the draconian sentences imposed on democratically elected politicians.
Similarly, the routine flag-waving by independence supporters of Catalan banners ignores the complexity of the situation and draws false comparisons with here.
I’m minded of once following the Scottish football team to a game in Zagreb, where later in a pub some shaven-headed Croatian fans sought to equate Scotland with their land and England with Serbia. It was never so and when they started commenting on Bosnia, I knew it was time to go.
So, I’ll admit I’m agnostic on Catalonian Independence, I just don’t know. Normally, I’m sympathetic to independence movements and I can see arguments in favour. But I also have concerns about some aspects and the possible effects on the rest of Spain. It’s not the same situation as Scotland, even though there are parallels.
I know some Scots ex-pats who are gung ho for Catalan independence but were No supporters in 2014. Equally, I’ve Spanish friends who were passionate Yes supporters but question what’s happening in Catalonia now. The political divide is equally complex with supporters of Catalan independence ranging from the far-right to the far-left, and it’s mirrored in the Spanish unity camp.
Even the political corruption in Spain that appals me has seeped into Catalan affairs. I also think that the Catalan Government mishandled the referendum even if I can understand the frustrations with a Spanish Government that was irredentist in its opposition to a democratic vote. But the brutality used to suppress the referendum was unacceptable in a democracy and casts a stain on the entire EU. Beating peaceful protestors and firing rubber bullets has now been compounded by the state unleashing its power through the courts. The sentences imposed on elected politicians, irrespective of what they sought to do, are appalling and an affront to democracy. It’s what would be expected in a military dictatorship, not an EU state in the second decade of the 21st century.
Madrid’s attempt to extradite Catalan nationalist politician Professor Clara Ponsati, now an academic at St Andrews University, to face charges of rebellion is made more complex by Spain being a 21st century EU member. In other situations, the Scottish courts may have found it easy to reject such an application for extradition. Here the Scottish Government has understandably voiced fears about the possible loss of the European Arrest Warrant through Brexit. Those concerns are justified as there’s a threat and the system is, on the whole, a good one. It’s being abused though by the Spanish as it was never meant for political crimes and the repression of democratically expressed views. Instead it was meant to be reserved for serious crimes and those seeking to evade justice.
That’s why there has to be a political, not a legal, solution in Catalonia and the EU has to act. It’s also why the partisan brigade on either side in this country should desist and support calls for a democratic process to resolve it. For this undermines the whole purpose of the European project and the ethos of what was sought to be established on the European continent, irrespective of Brexit. Europe came together after the war, vowing never to allow the spectre of fascism to haunt it. It may have taken time for the autocracies to end in places such as the Iberian peninsula but democracy ultimately prevailed. The EU was meant to protect that and enhance it when the Berlin Wall came down and Soviet tyranny departed.
But, the EU Commission has been effectively silent* as Hungary and Poland have lurched to the right and invoked laws that are shameful of European values. They also appear impotent as populist movements have risen in Austria and Italy and rather than act or speak out they have buried their heads in the sand. Yet, they cannot argue that it’s down to the sovereign rights of states, as they were all too quick to crush the democratic will of the Greek people and impose austerity upon them.
I voted remain but with no illusions about the Commission or direction of travel. Despite what’s happened I’d do so again if a second referendum were held, though with even less hope and simply a desire to stand with European colleagues, rather than be side-lined with unsavoury allies and contemptible friends.
But, a cancer is eroding the ethos of the EU, as well as undermining democracy on the European continent. The EU needs to ensure there’s a political solution in Catalonia not allow the abuse of legal process by Spain. Scotland though isn’t Catalonia even if a Scottish-type referendum now seems the only viable solution.
* This article has been changed to say the European Commission has been “effectively silent” rather than simply “silent” on events in Hungary and Poland. The Commission issued a statement in December saying it had concluded that Poland’s “judiciary is now under the political control of the ruling majority” and there was a “clear risk of a serious breach of the rule of law in Poland”. It gave the country three months to “address the problems” but also referred it to the Court of Justice of the European Union.
Poland has proposed some changes but aims to keep “the essence” of its new judicial system, its Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said last week.