Letter from Barcelona (8): The inflated interpretations of an innocuous US Embassy communication about Catalonia.

Firstly, some backdrop to this: it is a known fact that the former Spanish Foreign Minister, José García-Margallo y Marfil, who served under Prime Minister Rajoy from 2011 to 2016, made ‘great efforts’ to talk to governments around the world in order for them to not speak up in favour of Catalonia having the right to hold a referendum on independence. Margallo himself admitted this only a few weeks ago on TV. ‘No one knows the favours we owe to a lot of people for making the declarations they made,’ he said. He also explained that it had taken up a lot of his valuable time and energy: ‘I was in the Baltic countries four times, and it is not that we have particular economic interests there … I have been to Canada, to the Vatican, I don’t know how many times … this takes up an enormous amount of energy.’ I think one can safely assume that Spain’s current Foreign Minister, Alfonso Dastis, is equally anxious that other nations do not speak up in favour of Catalonia’s right to hold a referendum.

It is also a fact that the Catalan Government, particularly in recent months, has been very active in the international arena, seeking to drum up international support (and often simply awareness) for its bid to hold a referendum on self-determination, despite Rajoy’s conservative central government stating it is unconstitutional. Over the past few months, key figures (including Catalan president, Carles Puigdemont) have delivered speeches in Brussels, Paris, Lisbon and other European cities – whilst in London an All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) has been created by 21 cross-party MPs ‘to keep members of the British Parliament abreast of the on-going debates and events about Catalonia’s self-determination and to help ensure that debate is carried out in the most democratic way.’ Catalonia’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, Raül Romeva, even remarked that, ‘Sometimes, there is more interest in discussing the Catalan question here [in London] than in Spain.’ So much interest, in fact, that there’s another APPG debate this Wednesday 19 April in the Attlee Room at the Houses of Parliament in London, with the subject being, ‘A Democratic Solution for Catalonia.’

For some reason, however, recent trips to the United States and discussions with US congressmen and a former US president appear to have been a step too far for the Spanish central government – and rumours have been circulating as to whether this triggered the communication concerning Catalonia from the US Embassy in Madrid last week.

A link to the simple, innocuous press note from the US Embassy in Madrid was released (and posted on Twitter), in Spanish only, last Wednesday 12th April. Just 3 simple paragraphs. The first and second paragraphs delivered the usual diplomatic-backslapping: Spain and the United States are united by history, common values, ‘global challenges’, peace and security, striving for economic prosperity, preventing violent extremism, and ‘Spain is a vital ally, partner and friend to the USA.’ The last paragraph, however, was used to ‘reiterate that, as we’ve said before, the US Government position is that Catalonia is an internal matter [my italics] for Spain.’ And finally: ‘We are deeply committed to maintaining a relationship with a strong and unified Spain.’

So … what really provoked this?

Just two weeks previously, Catalan president Puigdemont had given a talk on ‘Catalonia, Today and Tomorrow’ at Harvard University’s Centre for European Studies in Boston. The next day he’d been in Washington DC, meeting US Congressmen (two Republicans and one Democrat), before travelling to New York for further meetings with groups that have cultural ties to Catalonia. Then he was back in the USA a few days later, travelling to Atlanta to attend the Annual Executive Briefing and Presidential Reception at the Carter Center, where he also spoke with the former US president and Nobel Peace Laureate, Jimmy Carter, in a private meeting. His entire agenda in the US was organised in secrecy in order to avoid possible interference from the Spanish diplomatic corps.

The press note issued by the US Embassy in Madrid last Wednesday was curious for several reasons. At the moment, and since Trump’s presidency begun, there isn’t a US Ambassador in Spain – although the acting ‘Chargé d’Affaires’ is Krishna R.Urs. The fact that the press note was issued only in Spanish also appeared odd. Then there was the ‘coincidence’ that it was swiftly followed by a communication from the Carter Center, too, stating that ‘neither President Carter nor the Center was able to become involved in the referendum process.’ Whilst it was also peculiar that the US Consulate in Barcelona (the current Consul General is Marcos Mandojana) did not at least re-Tweet the Embassy communication, the most remarkable of all was the complete over-gloating headlines from the majority of the Spanish press.

ABC newspaper called it a ‘slap’ for Catalan independence (‘Bofeton de EEUU al Secesionismo Catalan’); El Mundo called it ‘humiliation’ for president Puigdemont (‘EEUU humilla a Puigdemont y defiende una Espana unida’); El Periodico in Barcelona said the USA was ‘turning its back’ on the independence process (‘EEUU da la espalda al process soberanista’); and the El Pais online English version stated: ‘US snubs Catalan independence drive in latest setback for separatists.’

I don’t think it is any of those, really.

Saying that ‘Catalonia is an internal issue for Spain’ is not a snub. On the contrary, it is recognising that it is an issue. Of course the USA will try not to get involved, in the same way they won’t get involved with the independence referendum on Scotland. Yes, of course Catalonia is an internal issue … but the real issue here is that it is not being resolved internally within Spain. Of course other nations will say they want a strong and unified Spain – they’re hardly likely to say the opposite.

This morning I spoke with David Connell, who is an Information Officer in the ‘Public Diplomacy Section’ of the US Embassy in Madrid. He was charming, but chose his words carefully, saying that the statement speaks for itself, and that it simply reiterated US government policy that already existed. He also politely explained that he wouldn’t and couldn’t comment on any other internal discussions that might ever take place, back and forth, between the Spanish and US governments. You can interpret that how you like.

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