In the last few days, some people have tried to establish a connection between the events in Hong Kong and what happened recently in Barcelona. This connection may have been accepted by people of good faith who do not know the political situation in Catalonia very well. This is perfectly understandable. Most Spaniards do not know the political situation in Hong Kong very well either.
In both cases, there were protests on the streets and clashes with the police. However, the parallels stop there.
Spain is a democracy governed by the rule of law, where all political ideas can be openly and freely defended. According to Freedom House’s 2019 Freedom in the World Report, Spain scored 94 out of 100 in its commitment to political rights and civil liberties – equal to Germany and Britain.
When the Spanish Constitution was approved by referendum in 1978, 90.5 per cent of Catalan voters supported it, and just 4.6 per cent voted against it. The constitution grants a very high level of autonomy to Catalonia and also enshrines the country’s territorial integrity, as do most democratic constitutions.
Nonetheless, in 2017 some politicians tried to force the unilateral secession of Catalonia from the rest of Spain. What was peculiar about this effort is that it was not conducted by any opposition or underground group, but by the president and some counsellors of the Catalan autonomous government, and by the president of the Parliament of Catalonia. That is, from the very institutions created by the Spanish Constitution to grant an extensive degree of self-rule to all Catalans.
To achieve their goals, the politicians breached the Spanish Constitution, the Catalan Statute of Autonomy and many other laws. They ignored decisions of the Courts of Justice, including the Constitutional Court. In short, they acted in complete disregard of legal and democratic procedures, promoting public disorder and financing some of those activities with public funds. All those actions were directed from the top positions of the government and the Parliament of Catalonia.
Those politicians represented a minority of the population of Catalonia, because only a minority – though a large one – of Catalans support secession. That minority is steadily in decline. Paradoxically, it holds the majority of seats in the Catalan parliament due to the proportional system of distribution of the votes. Their support outside Catalonia is negligible, while any change of the Spanish Constitution would have to be approved by the Spanish people. The pro-independence parties are simply not strong enough to break up an old European nation like Spain. They nonetheless tried to impose their views on the rest of the population, claiming that only they represent the people of Catalonia.
The leaders of this movement were put to trial. The judicial proceedings were carried out with every possible safeguard and with the utmost transparency. The trial was broadcast online. The Supreme Court established that their actions had breached the Spanish Constitution, the Catalan Statute of Autonomy and other Spanish laws, and sentenced them to prison terms.
Those politicians have not been convicted for their ideas. Today, both the president of Catalonia’s autonomous government and the president of its parliament are pro-independence leaders. In Spain, defending political ideas like changing the constitution or declaring the independence of a portion of the national territory is not in itself a criminal offence. What is a crime is to pursue those goals in open violation of the law. This is what they were convicted for.
Some people in Catalonia agreed with the court’s decision, while others disagreed. The vast majority of the latter have expressed their disagreement peacefully, but some have resorted to violence and riots in the streets.
The Spanish democracy is strong, and it will overcome this situation. After the ruling, a new phase is at hand for the reconciliation. Our constitution provides the democratic framework for a deep political dialogue among Catalans, those who are pro-independence and those who are against. And also for the continuous prosperity and stability of Catalonia, one of the most vibrant, diverse and attractive parts of Spain.
Rafael Dezcallar is Spain’s ambassador to China