At a February 28 media conference announcing European Union (EU) support for Ukraine, EU foreign minister Josep Borrell remarked: “Thank God, [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelensky is not the kind of leader that escapes hidden in the car. He stays there resisting and we have to support him.”
All of the Spanish state’s media took Borrell’s comment as a gratuitous jab at former Catalan Prime Minister Carles Puigdemont — now a member of the European Parliament — who went into exile in Belgium when his government was sacked following the “illegal” Catalan independence referendum in 2017.
“Borrell puts Catalan separatism in its place," headlined the right-wing digital site El Liberal.cat.
Spanish unionism, of which Borrell despite being Catalan is an ardent champion, has since developed its own fairy tale about those days, involving Puigdemont being spirited out of Spain in the boot of a car.
Puigdemont tweeted in reply on March 1 that “I have never been in any car boot and Borrell knows that”, adding that he had no doubt that the attack of the police and Civil Guard on peaceful voters on October 1 “was that of an authoritarian state”.
Borrell replied that he was not referring to Puigdemont but to former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, who fled to Russia after the 2014 Maidan uprising, and that “at this moment, confronting a war, the last thing that passes through my mind is Mr Puigdemont”.
The Russia factor
In the context of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, this episode, and the flurry of media reactions to it, was completely trivial. Yet it confirmed how nervous Spanish unionism is about possible outbreaks in the unresolved Spain-Catalonia conflict.
That the entire spectrum of Spanish political opinion interpreted Borrell’s comment as directed against Catalan independentism was not just a reflection on the arrogance of this former Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) foreign minister.
It also reflected that Spanish unionism is seeking to exploit the fears created by Putin’s war in the Ukraine to advance in its own “war without guns” against the Catalan right to self-determination.
The immediate goal is to raise tensions within Catalonia’s governing two-party alliance — the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) and Together for Catalonia (JxC) — to the point of explosion.
The PSOE’s scheme is to use the European Parliament to paint JxC and Puigdemont as contaminated by association with “the Russians”, making use of investigations and phone taps ordered by the Spanish judiciary into connections between Puigdemont and his advisers and “senior Putin government figures”.
The issue became public in September last year, when The New York Times published an article based on “a European intelligence report” and “case files from two separate confidential investigations by magistrates in Barcelona and Madrid”.
It alleged that Josep Lluís Alay, adviser to Puigdemont, had “met with current Russian officials, former intelligence officers and the well-connected son of a KGB spymaster” in Moscow. Puigdemont and Alay confirmed the trips but said they were part of regular networking with foreign officials and journalists.
Alay said the insinuation that he was looking for Russian assistance was “a fantasy story created by Madrid”, while the article itself notes that it is unclear what, if any, support the Catalan independence movement received from Russian sources.
PSOE attacks and scores
The PSOE’s attack was delivered through an amendment from the Socialists and Democrats group in the European Parliament. It was incorporated into the parliament’s September 16 recommendation for Borrell and the European Council (of European leaders) on the direction of EU-Russia political relations.
The amendment included the assertions that “recent findings about the close and regular contacts between Russian officials, including members of the security service, and representatives of a group of Catalan secessionists in Spain require an in-depth investigation” and that “this could turn out to be yet another example of Russian interference in Member States and the constant attempts by Russia to exploit any matter it can to promote internal destabilisation in the EU”.
Puigdemont, who voted against the amendments but for the final recommendation condemned this crass attempt to criminalise a peaceful mass movement:
“The supposed involvement of Russian intelligence in the Catalan independence process is an absolute falsehood (or fake news as it’s called today). This fiction comes from a police body as deeply anti-independentist as the Civil Guard and derives from political spying on illegally obtained private messages.”
Nonetheless, the proposed investigation was reaffirmed in a March 8 European Parliament vote on “foreign interference in all democratic processes in the EU”.
Afterwards, Salvador Illa, leader of the PSOE’s Catalan franchise, the Party of Socialists of Catalonia (PSC), said the investigation was “very relevant” because “nobody today doubts that Russia has wanted to destabilise Europe”.
The PSC also scored a point on March 15, when Gabriel Rufián, the ERC leader in the Spanish Congress criticised Alay and Puigdemont: “The rich kids parade around Europe with the wrong people believing they’re James Bond. They don’t represent us.”
JxC secretary-general Jordi Sànchez exploded: “Is it possible to be more ignorant? At any rate, it’s impossible to be more miserable. And it’s undeniable that anyone who talks like this becomes an official spokesperson for the sewers of the State and the right wing’s media bubble.”
Who is Russia? Who is Ukraine?
Against this background, the March 9 session of the Catalan parliament was dominated by the Russian invasion and by debate over whether there were any parallels between the conflict and that between Spanish unionism and the Catalan movement.
For the “triple-headed right” (the PP, the rabidly unionist Citizens and the xenophobic Vox), the identification of Catalan independentism with the Russian aggressor was obvious.
“Putin would have liked the laws that you adopted with Mr Puigdemont when you carried out the madness that you carried out [the independence referendum]," Citizens’ leader Carlos Carrizosa told Catalan president Pere Aragonès.
ERC president Oriol Junqueras had asked two days previously: “What is the problem with the negotiating table [between Ukraine and Russia]: that the Ukrainians don’t want to take their place there or that there’s an external aggression on the part of a state that wants to impose itself and that is conditioned by its own internal authoritarian appetites? Well, in our case, three quarters of the same.”
However, despite these antagonistic readings of parallels between the Ukraine and Catalonia, on February 25 six of the eight parties in the Catalan parliament managed to agree on a statement condemning the Russian invasion, calling for the withdrawal of Russian forces and a settlement along the lines of the 2014–15 Minsk Accords. The exceptions were the left independentist People’s Unity List (CUP) and Vox.
Along with 484 other organisations, the ERC and Catalonia Together — the left force that supports a Catalan right to decide but not independence — had previously signed a Stop the War Coalition declaration.
This called for a negotiated solution in the Ukraine, an open welcome for refugees from the war and no increase in military expenditure.
The statement took no stand on whether the EU or Spain should provide weaponry to the embattled Ukrainians. That allowed organisations opposing and supporting sending arms to Kyiv — or, like ERC, ambiguous on the issue — to sign it.
For the CUP, which had previously declined to endorse a statement by Spanish Congress parties repudiating the invasion, the reason for its refusal to sign was that, in the words of a spokesperson, “we are the only ones who have a clear message against the war and against supplying weapons”.
The CUP’s statement on the war laid nearly all responsibility for the conflict on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the United States. It did not call specifically for the withdrawal of Russian troops but rather “an immediate halt to the deployment of troops to the region and their withdrawal to their respective territories”.
The March 9 session of the Catalan parliament, in which these different viewpoints were expressed, was observed by the Ukrainian consul to Barcelona. All but the CUP’s MPs, who held up antiwar placards depicting a falling bomb, applauded him in solidarity.
[Dick Nichols is Green Left’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona.]