Spain is seeking charges against separatist politicians for sedition and rebellion following an unsanctioned referendum over Catalan independence last year. As Spain seeks punitive measures against the ringleaders, a movement that began as a matter of regional independence has ballooned into a debate about democracy, tyranny, and sovereignty across Europe.
After Catalonia’s regional government proposed to hold an independence referendum last year, Spain acted decisively, declaring it illegal. Thousands came out to protest as Spanish police banned the referendum, with Catalonia’s foreign affairs chief Raül Romeva telling journalists that:
“The issue that is at stake today isn’t the independence — or not — of Catalonia, but democracy in Spain and the European Union… There are only two projects now on the table: a democratic project or repression.”
By those terms, Spain chose repression. Police seized ballot papers and arrested 14 senior Catalan officials, warning hundreds of others that they would be indicted if they helped to arrange the referendum. When almost half of the Catalan population turned out to vote after all, they were met with a brutality that shocked many. Police dragged voters from polling stations, beating them with batons and firing rubber bullets in a violent suppression that injured over 800.
The Catalan parliament shortly thereafter voted to declare independence, and was subsequently dissolved and replaced by direct rule from Madrid. Under supervision from Spain’s central government, the public was allowed to vote in a new parliament. The result was split more-or-less evenly between pro- and anti- independence groups, with a slim parliamentary majority going to separatist parties.
Now, Spain is charging the referendum organizers with sedition and rebellion, holding separatist leaders in prison and seeking extradition for those who fled the country. Carles Puigdemont, the former President of Catalonia who oversaw the referendum, has just avoided extradition from Germany for rebellion, a charge that carries a 30 year prison sentence. German courts have yet to make a decision on extradition over the lesser charge of misuse of public funds, based on around 1.6 million Euros used to hold the referendum. Upon his release on bail in Germany, Puigdemont called for the separatists to be released, saying that “It’s a shame for Europe to have political prisoners.”
Criminals or Political Prisoners?
Prominent independence leaders Jordi Cuixart and Jordi Sanchez were arrested and charged with sedition for leading a protest of tens of thousands of people, of which some destroyed property and intimidated officials. The judge stated that they did not call for “peaceful demonstration but to the protection of Catalan officials through ‘massive citizens’ mobilizations.” Pro-independence parties have backed Sanchez for president of the Catalan parliament, although he will be campaigning from behind bars as applications for his release from pre-trial detention have been rejected.
Former Catalan police chief Josep Lluis Trapero also faces a sedition charge, accused by a judge of belonging to a “criminal organization” with a “premeditated strategy that was perfectly coordinated” to break Catalonia away from Spain. The judge also noted that local police disobeyed Spanish government orders in many instances surrounding the referendum.
Puigdemont is not the only one facing extradition, either. Catalan economist and former Councilor of Education Clara Ponsantí fled to Scotland, where she has been arrested pending a decision on extradition for “violent rebellion and misappropriation of public funds.” Ponsanti handed herself into Scottish police, despite describing the charges as “political persecution.”
The status of the detainees as “political prisoners” is up for debate, however some have questioned the validity of rebellion charges, echoing the German judiciary which rejected extradition for Puigdemont on rebellion charges “because evidence of violence is not present.”
Puigdemont, Sanchez, and their compatriots have filed complaints with the U.N. on human rights grounds; so far the institution has requested that Spain “ensure that Mr. Jordi Sánchez I Picanyol can exercise his political rights.”
A Polarized Europe
The European Union has had very little to say on the Catalan issue, avoiding involvement by insisting that it’s a matter for Madrid to deal with. However Germany, the EU’s leading nation, is sending signals that it wants the matter dropped, much to Spain’s outrage. By refusing to extradite Puigdemont, the Germans have rejected Spain’s mission for vengeance and indicated that they want the two sides to come to an agreement. Puigdemont himself called for dialogue on his release from a German prison.
One gets the impression that the EU simply wishes the whole affair would go away, seeing danger in supporting either side. By supporting Spain, they lose their carefully constructed image as a democracy and human rights champion, while backing the Catalans would only encourage a splintering that goes against their aim of ever closer integration. Either option is fraught with peril, as separatist groups watch carefully across the continent, from Finland to France, Germany to Italy.
Florian Weber, leader of the Bavarian separatist party Bayern Partei in Germany, told Politico:
“The idea of independence is now in the minds of the people…Before this happened in Scotland and Catalonia people said, ‘Oh, that’s not possible’ … Now they say, ‘Maybe it’s possible.’”
In a world that seems increasingly polarized, Catalonia is no exception. The independence question has split opinion in the territory, the nation and potentially the continent. Europe as we know is has only existed for about 100 years thanks to centralization leading up to WWI. Which will win out, a desire for unity or the pull of age-old cultural connections?