Ahead of a high-stakes criminal trial, Madrid wants to fight the narrative of secessionist leaders on the international stage.
Diego Torres, politico.eu, updated 2/12/19, 1:03 PM CET
Image from article, with caption:Catalans build human towers and display the Independence flag during the Castells competition in October last year | David Ramos via Getty Images
MADRID — Talk to a Spanish official about Catalonia these days and it won’t be long before they mention democracy rankings.It’s become so commonplace that the Economist — whose Democracy Index ranks Spain among the world’s 20 “full democracies” and ahead of the U.S., France and Italy — has acquired a totemic aura ahead of the trial of Catalan independence leaders set to begin Tuesday.Twelve former Catalan government officials, lawmakers and civic leaders will respond before Spain’s Supreme Court to charges related to the October 2017 referendum on secession and subsequent declaration of independence by the regional parliament.Spain’s Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, his ministers and the most senior judge in the country have brandished the 175-year-old U.K. publication as proof of Spain’s democratic credentials, amid a high-stakes PR battle against Catalonia’s independence leaders.The region’s secessionist government says the trial is an opportunity to show the world that Spain is a “low-cost democracy” that stumbles on civil rights, while the Spanish state has unleashed an unprecedented media campaign to prove the opposite.
Oriol Junqueras, former deputy of Catalonia’s regional government, will face trial alongside 11 other separatists | Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty ImagesAt stake is what the dominant narrative will be on the world stage over a legal case with few — if any — precedents. Over 600 reporters from 150 media outlets, 50 of them foreign ones, are accredited to follow the proceedings, which will be broadcast live on TV and are expected to last for months.The highest authorities in the land agree on one thing, at least: that it’s a crucial test for Spain’s 40-year-old democracy.
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“This is the most important trial that we’ve had in our democracy,” Carlos Lesmes, the president of the Supreme Court — who’s not part of the proceedings — said in a rare briefing with international media.
Lesmes drew on all kind of evidence, not just the Economist, to buttress the credentials of the Spanish judiciary, from prison sentences against powerful politicians to a leaked cable where U.S. diplomats spoke of Spain’s “fiercely independent judiciary.” Data from the European Court of Human Rights shows Spain had 32 condemnations for civil rights’ violations between 2014 and 2018, lower than Belgium (43) and France (62) but higher than Germany (22) and the U.K. (18).PM Sánchez appeared at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg last week to defend Spain’s “modern and advanced democracy” and — two minutes into his speech — mentioned the Economist, which he referred to as “prestigious independent observers.”
Spanish PM Pedro Sánchez making a statement at La Moncloa palace | Philippe Marcou/AFP via Getty ImagesSánchez said Spain could assert its democratic credentials with “real, objective and verifiable data,” and charged — without mentioning them — against Catalan secessionists, arguing that they “base their political projects on fake narratives that mobilize hatred and division.” Sánchez’s ministers have bombarded the international media with briefings, interviews and opinion pieces defending Spain’s reputation, and provided reporters with a bounty of data.All of this signals a departure from the strategy of the previous administration under Mariano Rajoy. The conservative leader tried — and failed — to prevent the Catalan crisis from making headlines, keeping a low profile on the international stage before the referendum of October 1, 2017.Sánchez, by contrast, is taking a bolder, more confrontational approach to match his international ambitions, while Foreign Minister Josep Borrell has long waged a dialectic fight against the separatists.Yet while Sánchez wages a tougher PR fight abroad, the right-wing opposition accuses him of “treason” at home, due to his softer approach to talks with the government in Catalonia.“What Rajoy did well was traditional diplomacy … and the proof is that no one recognized Catalonia’s short-lived independence,” said Irene Lozano, the head of Global Spain, a new agency within the foreign ministry charged with promoting Spain’s reputation abroad.Lozano argued, however, that Rajoy didn’t use the tools of “public diplomacy” [JB emphasis] and, as a result, he allowed the separatists to drive, unchallenged, the international storyline. “They built up a narrative of what was happening that didn’t have anything to do with reality.”
Spain “has been playing below its potential as a country for many years” — Irene Lozano, head of Global Spain, a government news agency
In an interview with POLITICO at the headquarters of Global Spain, where it took her a full 15 minutes to mention the Economist’s Democracy Index, she said the aim of her organization goes beyond fighting the “discredit” campaign of Catalan secessionists.Spain “has been playing below its potential as a country for many years,” Lozano said. Now, she argued, it’s time to make up for lost time, as the EU is at a “critical juncture” when it badly needs Spain’s pro-European government and population.
War of the rankings
Lozano’s department is partly responsible for Spanish officials’ recent love affair with international rankings that measure the quality of the country’s institutions. These lists — not just the Economist’s — tend to place Spain among the world’s top democracies.For example, Freedom House in its Freedom in the World Report — which measures, among other things, the independence of the judiciary — awards Spain 94 points out of 100, above the U.S. (86 points), the U.K. (93 points) and France (90 points).
“We’re one of the most decentralized states in the world,” — Pedro Sánchez, Spanish PM
Another popular list that also measures the independence of the judiciary is the V-Dem Annual Democracy Report, from the University of Gothenburg, where Spain ranks 35th overall, below the U.K. and France, but above Greece and Poland.Global Spain also emphasizes that the country does well in rankings that measure regional autonomy, such as the Regional Authority Index — where Spain ranks as the second most decentralized country in the world — or the V-Dem report, where it is 34th in terms of regional autonomy and 10th for local autonomy.“We’re one of the most decentralized states in the world,” Sánchez said in Strasbourg. “The four languages of the state — Catalan, Castilian [Spanish], Basque and Galician — and our cultures enjoy the highest level of protection in our history.”The Catalan independence camp has its own favorite rankings.
Right-wingers protest against Sánchez’s stance toward Catalonia in Madrid on February 10 | Pierre-Philippe Marcou/AFP via Getty ImagesSpain does badly in international lists that use polls to measure citizens’ perceptions of judicial independence. When it comes to faith in its institutions — be it national politicians, judges or the EU — Spaniards tend to be skeptical.In the Eurobarometer, for example, Spain was the sixth worst EU country this year in terms of perceived judicial independence. Transparency International placed Spain 41st among 180 countries in its corruption perception index. And the Global Competitiveness Index of the World Trade Forum put Spain 58th out of 137 countries in terms of judicial independence, a sub-index based on a survey of business leaders.Another weapon of their choice are the reports of the Group of States Against Corruption, whose recommendations to reform the judicial system Madrid has dodged for years.
The Catalan government and independence supporters have revved up their PR effort, including by offering interviews with their jailed leaders going on trial this week. The region’s foreign minister, Alfred Bosch, has met the international media, as have most of the defendants’ lawyers. A Catalan-sponsored press venue in Madrid is being set up to follow the trial and Catalan government officials are touring the world to spread their message.“It’s a political trial,” Bosch told reporters, arguing that Spain has shown that it is a “low-cost democracy” ready to shortcut democratic and legal processes “to preserve the territorial integrity of what they believe is a nation.”“The trial will be an opportunity to show the world the true face of Spain: The violation of human rights, the lack of independence and neutrality of the judicial system and, therefore, the lack of separations of powers,” Jordi Cuixart, the president of Òmnium Cultural — Catalonia’s biggest pro-independence civil organization — told POLITICO in a written interview earlier this month.
Former Catalan President Carles Puigdemont delivers a speech in front of the European Commission in Brussels on September 25, 2018 | John Thys/AFP via Getty ImagesCuixart, one of the 12 defendants, has been in jail since October 2017. He says he’s being prosecuted for “political motives” and for his “peaceful and democratic principles.” The prosecutor’s office, which charges him with rebellion and wants him sentenced to 17 years in prison, says Cuixart was a key player in a plot to achieve independence in violation of Spain’s constitution.The trial, Cuixart said in the interview, is proof that Spain is a “failed state from a democratic point of view,” adding: “My conviction would mean condemning future generations to live in a totalitarian state.”The independence camp has scored some victories at the international level. The biggest one was a German court decision last year to refuse to extradite former Catalan President Carles Puigdemont for rebellion.The court argued that the equivalent offense in German law, high treason, requires a level of violence that wasn’t seen in Catalonia. However, the court ruled that Puigdemont could be sent to Spain to face the charge of misuse of public funds.The Spanish judge in charge of the investigation later dropped the extradition request against Puigdemont and others who fled the country after the declaration of independence, which is why he won’t appear before the Supreme Court this week, as under Spanish law he cannot be tried in absentia. His former deputy, Oriol Junqueras, who stayed behind and was arrested, will be the highest-ranking official to face the courts.
The pro-independence camp has also notched up some victories with prominent civil society groups.Amnesty International has spoken up for Cuixart and Jordi Sànchez, another grassroots independence leader. It described the charges of sedition levied against them as “excessive” and argued that pre-trial detention was unjustified, demanding their release.Significantly, however, the NGO hasn’t labeled them “prisoners of conscience,” its term for people who have been jailed simply for exercizing their human rights. Nor has it spoken up for the rest of the accused.
Nobel Prize-winning author Mario Vargas Llosa resigned from his role in PEN International in protest against the Catalan independence movement | Raul Arboleda/AFP via Getty ImagesPEN International, Front Line Defenders, the World Organization Against Tortureand the American Political Science Association have also issued critical statements against the criminal proceedings.Lozano of Global Spain blamed some “victories” of the separatist camp on “disinformation,” “fake news” and “manipulation.” She accused the secessionists of acting “without scruples” and besmirching reputable organizations to achieve their goals.She gave the example of the PEN, whose statement read: “Catalans have been persecuted — in a way not seen since the Franco dictatorship — for different artistic expressions clearly attacking the right to freedom of expression and its different forms of artistic expression.”The statement originated from the Catalan branch from PEN, but was endorsed by PEN International, whose executive director is Catalan writer Carles Torner, and another 14 centers of the 149 that the organization has in 100 countries.The statement prompted Nobel Prize-winner Mario Vargas Llosa to resign as president emeritus of PEN International, accusing the organization of giving “its moral and institutional backing to a racist and supremacist movement such as the Catalan independence movement,” and endorsing “the lies of the PEN Catalan center, a militant organ of Catalan secessionism, which has been running an international campaign to distort the truth.”
“The Spanish ‘democracy’ is so mature that it’s already below Venezuela, Turkey and Syria” — Carles Puigdemont
Newspaper El Mundo later reported that the Catalan branch of PEN had received over €300,000 from the Catalan government between 2013 and 2017. Asked by POLITICO to comment on this, PEN International said in a statement that its Catalan branch had “a diverse coalition of funders which include the Barcelona City Hall and the European Commission.”Lozano gave another recent example of what she sees as manipulation: A tweet by Puigdemont referring to the V-Dem index. “The Spanish ‘democracy’ is so mature that it’s already below Venezuela, Turkey and Syria,” the Catalan leader said, linking his words to an article on the V-Dem ranking by a Catalan digital newspaper. The tweet was shared over 5,000 times.Spain’s position in the general V-Dem ranking — 35th — was well above Venezuela, Turkey and Syria, but in one specific measure, the direct popular vote, it did lag behind those countries, as did many other EU nations, including Germany, France and Belgium.But if Global Spain’s Lozano is focusing on spotting rivals’ weaknesses, the separatists are prepared to hit back — and have her in their sights.“It’s deplorable to live in a state which creates specific organs to spread fake news under the brand Global Spain,” current Catalan President Quim Torra told lawmakers in the regional chamber earlier this month.CORRECTION: This article has been update to correct the length of sentence that prosecutors are seeking for Jordi Cuixart.Original Article