Spain’s foreign minister in bid to improve nation’s standing in Catalan conflict

Spanish Foreign Affairs minister Josep Borrell during his visit to Strasbourg. [Council of Europe]

As the first anniversary of the declaration of independence of Catalonia approaches and tensions between Madrid and Barcelona increase, Spanish Foreign Affairs Minister Josep Borrell met with senior European officials in Strasbourg this week to seek support.

October will be a key month in Spanish politics, as will September, given the anniversary of the referendum, the declaration of independence and the imprisonment of Catalan politicians who took part in those crucial events all on the horizon.

Catalan politicians were in the past very active in accusing the Spanish state of being anti-democratic and unwilling to negotiate, while Mariano Rajoy’s government remained silent almost until the conflict broke out in October last year.

The current Spanish government, headed by Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, wants to be more active in shaping the international perception of Spain. That is why foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell was dispatched to Strasbourg to meet with a large group of European leaders.

“There has been an important propagandist effort by the separatist movement that had deteriorated the international perception of Spain,” Borrell told reporters, “we are putting things right”.

“This is an internal matter with an international repercussion,” the former president of the European Parliament admitted.

The minister is meeting members of the European Commission, including First VP Frans Timmermans – who has been very active in defending Spanish constitutional order -, Günther Oettinger and Miguel Arias Cañete.

Borrell also met with the current president of the European Parliament, Antonio Tajani, as well as MEPs and leaders of the political groups.

Tensions rise between Madrid and Catalonia as political year begins

The recent change of government in Spain has helped ease tensions but a lawsuit filed by Catalan separatist leader Carles Puigdemont in Belgium against the Spanish judge overseeing his case risks stoking the fires again.

CoE defends Constitutional order

Only Thorbjørn Jagland, Secretary General of the Council of Europe, has spoken out after meeting the minister.

Jagland openly showed his support to the Spanish government in dealing with the Catalan conflict. “We are the defenders of the constitutional order in all members,” he told the press.

Therefore, the Secretary-General warned, any solution to the Catalan conflict should be found within the Spanish Constitutional order.

Catalan politicians have claimed that justice is not fair in Spain. Former Catalan President Carles Puigdemont and his chancellors, who fled Spain in October last year, even filed a lawsuit in Belgium against the judge handling their case.

Jagland, however, did not see “any sign” to think that the Spanish courts “are not up” to their job or will not respect the European Convention on Human Rights.

However, he stressed, “they have the right to go to the Court of Human Rights,” but only after they have exhausted all the possibilities at the domestic level. Although he preferred not to prejudge the result of an eventual trial.

Borrell himself admitted that he would have preferred “the judge to consider other precautionary measures to avoid the flight” than the unconditional imprisonment. Although he acknowledged that this is not politically helpful, he called for the independence of the judge to be respected.

An important date

Although the minister insists this visit is only part of his tasks representing the country, it does not seem to be by chance that he has chosen this particular date.

On Tuesday (11 September), Catalans celebrate their national day, known as ‘Diada’. Over the past few years it has become an important date for separatists, who have rallied in favour of independence in massive peaceful demonstrations.

“The Diada was the national day of Catalonia and all the Catalans, regardless of their political ideas or positions,” the minister said. But he argued that half the Catalan population, which does not want an independent Catalonia, does not participate in the celebration anymore.

“The ‘Diada’ as a national holiday has been hijacked by the separatist movement,” Borrell claimed.

Avramopoulos in Spain to announce further EU support to tackle migration

As Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos headed to Madrid, the European Commission announced Friday (3 August) further 3 million in emergency aid to support Spanish border guards in curbing irregular migration.

Spain, ‘a shining example’

Spain is facing trial due to the violation of the principle of ‘non-refoulement’ in the expulsion of two migrants who illegally entered the country in August 2014 and a recent report by the Council of Europe warned that reception facilities in Ceuta and Melilla are overcrowded.

But Jagland described Spain as “a shining example” in managing migration. He stressed that despite being the main recipient of asylum seekers and migrants, “It has not resorted to xenophobic movements contrary to what has happened in other countries in Europe.”

As more and more member States call for European borders to be closed and xenophobic rhetoric continues to spread, the European Commission has also highlighted the “exemplary European spirit” Spain has shown in managing migration over the past few months.

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