Europe should pay attention to Spain’s un-European harshness towards the Catalans

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL October 21, 2019

Now that Catalonia’s president, Quim Torra, has called for a dialogue with the Spanish government, it’s time to state some basic truths:

  • Spain has been behaving in an un-European way towards the Catalans, with the Spanish Supreme Court handing down draconian sentences for non-violent political offenses
  • the European Commission hasn’t dared (or cared) to say as much. Instead, the bloc’s official instinct is only to look eastwards – to Hungary and Poland – to criticise those governments’ violations of rule of law
  • the different approaches to violations – Madrid is not in the European Commission’s crosshairs but Budapest and Warsaw are – indicates that Europe has a caste system. Northern countries are considered the highest; the southern somewhat less disciplined and reliable, but still heaps better than member-states in eastern and central Europe

Leonid Bershidsky on Bloomberg View points out the troubling issues raised with respect to the Catalan cases. It has handed down prison sentences of nine to 13 years to nine Catalan leaders (some of whom, such as Jordi Cuixart did no more than urge peaceful dispersal by protestors in Barcelona). As Mr Bershidsky writes: “Few other democracies would have sent people to prison for such a long time for what is essentially no more than extreme speech.” And last year, he says, “the European Court of Human Rights ruled against Spain in a case involving two Catalans who burned a photograph of the Spanish royal couple during the king’s visit to Girona in 2007.” They had been convicted for inciting violence against the monarchy, but the European court did not agree.

In fact, sedition laws are not generally considered necessary in healthy democracies. Mr Bershidsky points out that “Germany only has one on hate speech, carrying a maximum prison sentence of five years. England, Wales and Scotland abolished sedition as an offense in 2009 and 2010. Australia did the same in 2011, choosing instead to punish ‘urging violence’. The US has a rarely-applied law against ‘seditious conspiracy’, but it can only be used against people plotting a violent overthrow of the government.”

The offense of sedition, legal scholar Anushka Singh says in her 2018 book ‘Sedition in Liberal Democracies’ is “a dilemma within liberal democracies”.

I suppose, the question this raises is about the quality of Spain’s liberal democracy and how it uses the law to maintain (or undermine) democracy. It’s the sort of issue that must legitimately concern the European authorities.