First, to clarify: I love Spain. I love Catalonia. For over 20 years, on and off, I’ve lived and worked here – 10 years in Madrid, and 10 years in Barcelona, two of the greatest cities in the world. So I feel I can comment …
Not so long ago, Spain used to be cool. Very cool. Fiestas, football, food, fashion, fast and furious new flamenco, modern design and architecture, art and Almodóvar, Penélope and Paz, Banderas and Bardem, Nadal and Gasol, Domingo and Carreras – they all helped to make it cool – and, dare I say it, even Felipe, when he was still just a prince, or at least when he led out the Spanish Olympic team at the opening of the 1992 Games in Barcelona. He was cool then. Was.
Someone once told me that those good times in Spain were just ‘paper over the cracks’. I used to think it meant that behind the façade of all the fiestas, an economic hangover would always resurface, as it did in September 92 immediately after those Olympic Games, and again in 2008 as part of the global financial crisis, bursting the Spanish property bubble and much more. I never wanted to accept that the ‘paper over the cracks’ might refer to other sinister elements of Spanish society, such as the ghosts of Franco. I had a lot to learn, and I’m still learning.
Friends from Madrid and elsewhere in Spain sometimes ask why I support the independence of Catalonia. To be honest I don’t think I initially did, and I’m still not 100% sure that I do now – although I more than sympathise with their reasons for not wanting to remain part of Spain, and even more so every day. What I do support and always will, is the right to vote. I didn’t want Brexit but I thought the referendum was necessary. I didn’t (and don’t) want Scotland to leave the UK, but I thought they should at least have the right to vote on it (and to do so again, if necessary, in light of Brexit).
I spent the whole of Sunday 1 October 2017, the day of Catalonia’s ‘banned’ referendum, working in a newsroom in Barcelona, from 8am until very late that evening – helping on a Catalan and Spanish newspaper’s English edition. As the news, images and videos came in of all the police brutality against innocent citizens simply trying to vote, I also did a report for Sky News. On air, live during the interview, the newscaster from London told me that some of the images they were receiving from Barcelona were ‘too bloody’ to even broadcast. As the day went on, colleagues in the newsroom turned pale with shock. One told me that he was more upset by that day’s events than during the terrorist attack of 17 August; this was the Spanish police attacking its own citizens. I was shocked by how much it also upset me. I really felt for the people of Catalonia. By the time I got back to Sitges later that night, I was in floods of tears. I had to be consoled. I will never, ever forget the impact that day had on me.
The next day, I was incensed that the ‘Madrid media’ failed to report on the true events – unlike the international (and Catalan) media. It incensed me that the EU remained silent. It incensed me that Spain’s foreign minister, Alfonso Dastis, went on CNN and BBC stating that the images of police brutality were ‘fake news’. It incensed me and it still does.
Right now, at the start of 2018, ‘Brand Spain’ is no longer cool – far from it. Spain has lost its mojo. I hope that one day it gets it back – but things need to change, starting at the very top. The prime minister of Spain, Mariano Rajoy, is utterly inept. The way that his PP party (already stained with numerous corruption scandals) has handled the Catalan issue has been atrocious – not just an on-going international ‘PR disaster’, but totally wrong, and, I’d say, possibly illegal.
Despite saying he would, Rajoy failed to prevent a referendum in Catalonia from taking place in the first place. Refusing dialogue, the actions he did take, however, were absurd (and still are). Too numerous to list them all here, they range from threatening the Catalan parliament, department of economy and other institutions (as well as raiding some of those buildings), to searching the car boot of a printing company’s cleaner in search of ballot cards (even boasting that the police had managed to confiscate some). His government threatened Catalonia’s mayors, citizens and volunteers, banned posters and the media from running advertisements, stopped events and debates, clearly violating human rights and the freedom of speech. They shut down websites and apps, blocked telephone operators and even threatened to cut off the power. At a huge cost, they then sent a cartoon ship full of Civil Guard and Spanish Police to stop people from voting … but they failed. As for the gifts and awards to Juncker, or pointless trips to see Trump or May … just don’t get me started on all that.
Rajoy has never used ‘politics’ to try and resolve the Catalan issue at all. He’s simply used the judges and the courts … and continues to do so. Yesterday, the democratically elected Catalan vice-president Oriol Junqueras, was ordered to remain in prison, still without trial. Meanwhile, the king of Spain’s brother-in-law, Iñaki Urdangarin, who was sentenced to over 6 years in prison yet is still ‘awaiting his appeal’, was photographed on holiday in Rome. I do not believe there is judicial independence in Spain – far from it. That is why Catalan president Carles Puigdemont and four other Catalan ministers are still in Brussels. They went there to seek justice, not to avoid it.
Rajoy’s application of article 155 to take control of Catalonia was wrong. He then called the elections for 21 December, but lost. Yes, he lost. There are political prisoners in Spain – that is a fact. They should be released immediately. Every day, things are getting worse. I believe Rajoy needs to take a big step back (or better still, resign – but he won’t, I know). Puigdemont should be allowed to return from Brussels without any threat of arrest. Then they all need to sit around the table with international mediators, and which is what should have happened last September. Dialogue is needed. A political solution is needed. Then Spain (and Catalonia) will get its mojo back …