Article published at The National, 27th February 2017
IT is hard to believe that democracy is on trial in a western European country today. But that is what is happening at the Supreme Court in Madrid where Francesc Homs, a Catalan member of the Spanish parliament, stands accused.
Homs’ supposed crime is helping to organise a historic vote in 2014 where 2.3 million people expressed their democratic will. If found guilty by the Supreme Court, he could be banned from public office for up to nine years.
Homs, minister of the presidency in Catalonia, was stripped of his parliamentary immunity so that he could stand trial for his role in the independence referendum three years ago. He is just one target in an escalating campaign of intimidation from Madrid as Mariano Rajoy’s government uses the judiciary to decapitate the leadership of the independence movement and silence the Catalan people.
The former president of Catalonia, Artur Mas, and two other ex-ministers, have already been put on trial for criminal disobedience for conducting the referendum, a non-binding consultation of the people in which 80 per cent of those who voted supported independence. Meanwhile, the speaker of the parliament of Catalonia, Carme Forcadell, is awaiting judgment in yet another case. She is accused of breaching a Constitutional Court order last year when she allowed members of parliament to exercise their free speech and debate the subject of independence.
The trials have not been restricted to Catalonia’s leaders. More than 300 local mayors and town hall councillors have been charged with offences such as allowing the Catalan pro- independence flag to be flown on public buildings.
The timing of Rajoy’s attacks is no accident. He is doing everything he can to halt the new referendum that we will hold by September this year, which the Catalan parliament has decided will be legal and binding. If the people decide for independence, we will take concrete steps towards establishing Catalonia as a sovereign state in the European Union. Then we can become an equal friend and neighbour to Spain and end all the unnecessary tension and conflict.
The Spanish actions have already attracted international concern from parliamentarians in Britain, Canada and Ireland. They are right to be worried – European values are at stake. Modern states rest on the mutually supporting pillars of democracy and the rule of law. If the courts and constitution are used to suppress the democratic will rather than uphold it, the foundations of our free society are put at risk, not just in Spain but in the EU as a whole. It is vital that all those who stand for democracy, across Europe and beyond, now speak out.
The Spanish Constitutional Court is no place to settle our future fairly. Its judges are appointees of Rajoy’s Popular Party and its president, Francisco Perez de los Cobos, is a former party activist.
Catalonia’s people have a right to demand better.
Some 80 per cent of them, whether supporters or opponents of independence, believe our future should be settled at the ballot box after free and open debate, not by criminalising democracy; 87 per cent say they will accept the result, whichever way it goes.
Catalans have never strayed from the path of democracy and discussion. Years ago, Madrid was also willing to talk. The 2006 Statute of Autonomy was negotiated between Spain and Catalonia, adopted by both parliaments and confirmed by the Catalan people in a referendum.
This acknowledged Catalonia as a nation within Spain and granted it significant new powers. Then, in 2010, at the behest of Rajoy’s party, the Constitutional Court struck down 14 clauses of the statute and dictated how numerous others should be interpreted.
This marked a new beginning. The ruling angered many people in Catalonia, but it also brought clarity to the choice they face.
The result is that the cause of independence has become a mass movement. Every September 11, the anniversary of our absorption by Spain in 1714, supporters of an independent state pack our streets in numbers as high as two million in Barcelona alone – out of a total Catalan population of just 7.5 million.
Elections in 2015 confirmed what was happening on the streets, producing a Catalan parliament with a clear majority in favour of independence.
Despite all the attempts to silence us, we would still welcome the opportunity to sit down and talk to the Spanish government about any aspect of how the voting should be conducted. But our patience has limits. If necessary, we will go ahead without them and organise the referendum to the highest international standards of probity and fairness.
The arguments for independence rest on Catalonia’s distinctive identity, underpinned by a growing modern economy. Commitment to the European project is central to the Catalan identity.
By taking its place as an independent EU member, Catalonia would be free to play its full part in the process of integration that will shape our continent.
Many people quite fairly disagree with these arguments and believe Catalonia should remain within Spain. It is time for a free debate between us and to let the people decide. I have not lost hope that the Madrid government will take the same view.
Catalonia’s leaders may be the ones appearing in court today. But it is the Spanish state’s commitment to democracy that will be judged by the world.
Albert Royo is the Secretary General of the Public Diplomacy Council of Catalonia (Diplocat)