Nothing captures the attitude of the European Union (EU) and its main member states towards the Catalan struggle for self-determination better than this well-known verse:
Last night I saw upon the stair,
A little man who wasn't there,
He wasn't there again today
Oh, how I wish he'd go away …
The week of July 1-8 was marked by important (non) appearances by the “little man” of the movement for Catalan sovereignty.
First, there was the July 2 rally of more than 10,000 Catalan demonstrators (according to police figures) outside the opening of the new session of the European Parliament in Strasbourg.
The spirited rally, whose chants could be heard inside the parliamentary chamber and across the city, “wasn’t there” as far as the national French TV and the “journals of record” like Le Monde and Figaro were concerned, although it got coverage in local media for its curiosity value (“Colourful Catalans come to town!”).
Addressed by Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) from Ireland, Slovenia, Portugal and Catalonia, the protest demanded that three successful Catalan candidates — former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont, vice-president Oriol Junqueras and health minister Toni Comín — be allowed to take up their seats.
The Spanish Supreme Court had previously acted to block the Catalan representatives from being seated as European deputies, despite them having been elected by 2.3 million voters at the May 26 European election.
In the case of the exiled Puigdemont and Comín, the court had upheld the Spanish Central Electoral Commission’s (JEC) ruling that they could not be regarded as MEPs, because they had not gone to Madrid to swear allegiance to the Spanish constitution (if they had they would have been arrested and joined Junqueras in preventive detention).
Puigdemont and Comín tried to take the oath via proxy — not excluded under Spanish law — but the Supreme Court upheld the JEC’s refusal to accept that option.
In the case of Junqueras — in detention while the court ponders his sentence on charges of rebellion, sedition and embezzlement — the judges simply ruled he could not leave jail to take the oath — even though it had allowed that course when Junqueras had earlier been elected to the Spanish Congress.
The motive for this stark contradiction was simple: had Junqueras been allowed out he would have acquired European parliamentary immunity. If the Supreme Court had subsequently found Junqueras guilty on the charges he is facing, it would have had to apply to the European Parliament to suspend his immunity — sparking a very public trial of the Spanish legal system itself.
As matters presently stand (July 10), the three Catalans do not exist as MEPs — their names just “aren’t there” on the European Parliament web site.
Comin’s and Puigdemont’s claim that their parliamentary immunity began the day they were elected will be heard by the Luxembourg-based Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU). The Spanish Supreme Court has also allowed Junqueras’s defence lawyers to seek a CJEU ruling on the issue.
The Spanish court will try to reach its verdict on the Catalan defendants before the CJEU can rule, thus removing the spectre of an embarrassing appeal to the European Parliament.
EU ‘top jobs’…
July 2 was also the occasion of a second event where the Catalan national question apparently “wasn’t there”.
This was the announcement by the Council of Europe (the leaders of the 28 EU member states) of their candidates for the EU’s “top jobs” — President of the Council of Europe, President of the European Commission, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (head of EU diplomacy) and President of the European Central Bank (ECB).
The council’s final proposal, which is still to be voted on by the European Parliament, was the result of chains of vetoes from the rival member-state and party group interests that dominate the EU.
The biggest loser from the process was the flimsy illusion of “European parliamentary democracy”. Provided the European chamber endorses the deal, the “top jobs” that were supposed to go to lead candidates of the party tickets winning most votes will now go to a different selection of bigwigs.
The winning foursome will be one that causes least irritation to the EU member state governments and to the largest pro-EU parliamentary groups — the conservative European People’s Party (EPP), the social-democratic Socialist and Democrats (S&D) and the liberal Renew Europe (formerly the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats in Europe).
The shift from “European democracy” to the final selection happened as follows.
The first lead candidate to fall was the EPP’s Manfred Weber (Germany), initially slated as the new European Commission president. Under attack from the S&D and Renew Europe and with waning support within the EPP, the inexperienced Weber eventually lost the backing of his key ally, German chancellor Angela Merkel.
Merkel was persuaded by her Social Democratic Party (SPD) partner in government to shift support to S&D lead candidate Franz Timmermanns (Netherlands), but on condition that Weber got the speakership of the European Parliament and Bundesbank boss and anti-inflation fetishist Jens Weidmann got the ECB.
However, this deal only lasted until it was announced: there was no way Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic (the “Visegrad group”) were going to cop Timmermanns, chief scourge in his role as Commission first vice-president of their violations of EU law on media and judicial independence.
The thought of the ultra-dry Weidmann as head of Euro area monetary policy also made the debt-burdened Mediterranean member states, particularly Italy, very nervous.
Enter French president Emmanuel Macron, with an announcement that, since none of the lead candidates had a chance of persuading the member states, they had to be discarded. This opened the door to horse-trading between Germany and France for the top jobs. If endorsed:
• The European Commission presidency will go to German defence minister Ursula von der Leyen (EPP), presently facing investigation for irregularities in military hardware procurement. Germany will get the EU’s top job for the first time in 50 years;
• The ECB presidency will go to IMF head Cristine Lagarde, scourge of Greece as co-author of the 2015 Troika “bailout” and guilty as former French finance minister of “negligence” in relation to a 2011 €403 million arbitration deal in favour of tycoon Bernard Tapie. France will get Europe’s most powerful job; and
• Belgian Acting Prime Minister Charles Michel (Renew Europe) will become President of the Council of Europe — effectively ending the EPP–S&D duopoly in the EU.
And the Catalan link? If the European Parliament agrees, the future head of European diplomacy will be the aggressive Josep Borrell (S&D). Borrell is the acting Spanish foreign minister and Spanish Socialist Workers' Party (PSOE) government’s hard cop against the Catalan sovereignty movement.
Borrell organised spying on Catalan foreign delegations and rejected outright any Canadian-style “clarity act”, specifying the conditions under which the Spanish government would concede an independence referendum to the Catalans.
He will clearly use his new position to help Spain persuade the world that Catalonia has no right to self-determination. How, as EU diplomacy chief, he will reconcile the European Parliament’s position on Kosovo (recognition of its right to self-determination and its 2008 declaration of independence) with the Spanish position (non-recognition) remains to be seen.
In helping craft this deal, acting PSOE Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez behaved more as a defender of Spanish state unity than as a champion of S&D: his government could live with the failure of S&D lead candidate Timmermanns so long as Borrell scored the EU diplomacy post.
On July 3, Sánchez returned to Spain to resume his wrestling match with the radical formation Unidas Podemos (UP, alliance of Podemos and the United Left) over the formation of a new PSOE-led government.
In contrast to the EU, there was no pretence inside the Spanish State that Catalonia “wasn’t there”: it was omnipresent.
On July 5, Sánchez said: “I’m not obsessed about portfolios and the idea of forming a government with independents shows that […] but I don’t want it to depend on pro-independence forces, and UP doesn’t defend that position. […] We agree with UP on social policy, but not with regard to the Catalan crisis.”
It has been the best excuse for Sánchez’s refusal to entertain a PSOE–UP coalition government (the option most favoured by PSOE and UP voters), and to propose instead a PSOE administration in which UP could suggest independent ministers and control some senior public service appointments.
So intense is UP’s desire to sit around the cabinet table with PSOE that leader Pablo Iglesias managed to convince Together We Can, the Catalan coalition in which UP participates, to abandon its main policy — a negotiated referendum as condition for supporting a PSOE-led administration.
On July 9, UP communicated to Sánchez that it was prepared to sign a document abandoning the celebration of a referendum in Catalonia and supporting the PSOE’s foreign affairs line (such as recognition of Venezuela’s Juan Guaidó as president).
According to July 8 El País, “senior UP sources” said: “There are no lines in the sand. We understand, on the weight of the votes, that the PSOE would have to have leadership within the government on the Catalan question. We are going to be loyal.”
The UP line of seeking to govern with the PSOE now reaches its logical conclusion — abandonment of any policy that Sánchez and company don’t like, beginning with the Catalan right to self-determination.
Shall we see any revolt within the UP membership against this capitulation?
[Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona.]