Gary Paterson: The EU risks turning support against itself over mishandling of Catalan crisis

Political activist Gary Paterson is scathing about the EU's response to Spanish police violence in Catalonia

EUROPE'S failure on Catalonia is a PR disaster and a disregard of its own values that is already having consequences, and sadly the European movement appears oblivious to it. From a Barcelona polling station, I witnessed and shared in disbelief and anger at the poor response to disproportionate violence against unarmed citizens.

Despite cause for concern following unprecedented attacks on the autonomy of the Catalan institutions - with Spanish forces raiding Catalan Government buildings, detaining officials without due process, and seizing finances and ballots - the mood on the morning as I attended a polling station in the Sants neighbourhood of Barcelona was buoyant; a moment of community gathering, emotion, and democratic pride, soon to be hit by the reality of Spain's violent response.

By noon, the smiles, cheering and music turned to gasps, tears and tension as voters exchanged videos and pictures of attacks across the country which seen Spanish paramilitary officers tearing through voting lines and ballot stations; smashing faces, beating firemen, throwing pensioners down stairs, firing weapons, and kicking and jumping on people's heads. 

It was one of the most appalling sights I have seen in a supposedly advanced European democracy. At the time, Europe's silence was deafening, and yet what followed disgraced it further.

A glimmer of hope appeared with early statements by the Belgian prime minister and the Scottish first minister both condemning violence. However, a swooning statement from the British celebrating friendship and unity, in spite of the horrors being unleashed upon fellow European citizens, set the tone for Europe’s response.

At last, the EU’s executive body released a widely criticised statement which laid the blame solely at the Catalans' door for fostering "division", while merely referencing a couple of words to violence which it attributed to nobody.

The statement swiftly concluded with an endorsement of the Spanish prime minister to resolve a violent situation which he himself ordered. In the minds of many Europhiles it was a perfectly crafted statement that hit the middle ground, it didn’t seem to matter that the oppressive militaristic policing and attacks on European citizens were not unequivocally challenged.

With a good understanding of Europe’s operation, positives, and shortcoming, I am perhaps more sympathetic than most regarding the EU’s outcomes, which are often limited to take the correct action that many, myself included, desire and expect. 

However, the unjustifiable response from the Commission fell way below the mark of what was possible and necessary. Citizens with European passports and Catalan ballots were allowed to face a virtually ignored barrage of violent and dispassionate policing from bussed-in paramilitary riot forces draped in Spanish flags, who were allowed to act in such an authoritative and nationalistic manner that it brought Catalan officers and firefighters to tears.

The legality of the referendum aside, Europe could have noted the same concerns of the UN and Amnesty International to police actions and suppression of civil participation and expression, and indeed the fact that it didn't leaves me questioning why the EU apparently disagrees with the UN’s human rights body.

The reality is that the EU has objectively decided to ignore the situation in Catalonia, not only because it doesn't want to criticise the Spanish Government but also because Europe would rather this whole situation was not happening - wishful thinking is no excuse for a dereliction of duty to uphold core European civil rights.

Europe's core values of democracy, human and civil rights, and social development are what have inspired faith and hopes for Europe in scores of people across the continent, but the EU’s response has sorely let down that trust, and the time to meet it is running out. Meanwhile, Europe’s human rights and democracy body, the Council of Europe, has also said nothing on the matter.

Sadly, I fear the misjudged handling of the Catalonia situation will only make it clear that the EU cannot be a reliable voice for human rights unless it fits its political agenda. This is not necessarily unusual in international relations but it should be for an institution which counts among its founding principles the protection and extension of human rights. 

Despite all the failings of the UN, its response did not tip-toe around the issue to appease power players; so too, Europe cannot afford to hide behind relationship management. 

Were the actions in Catalonia to happen in a regime that the EU is critical of, we would already have EU leaders such as Guy Verhofstadt and Jean-Claude Juncker on a plane while the EU Commission sponsored Facebook profile picture frames demanding defence of the critical European values of assembly and speech free from violent repression.

Any yet any hope of a course correction by Brussels was dashed at a debate this week on the Catalan crisis in the European Parliament, as the EU continued to dig its hole deeper. 

It was a debate that saw the majority People’s Party, including Spain’s governing party and holder of all the power positions in Brussels, attempt to restrict the terms of the debate to avoid discussing the violence that shocked the world. 

Most jarring, however, was the statement from the Commission’s first vice-president, Frans Timmermans, which described the deployment of an army of weaponised paramilitary police against unarmed citizens as "proportionate force".

While Europe appears oblivious to the widespread public concern and expectation, it is clear for many observers that Europe failed its citizens in Catalonia in favour of political expediency; in doing so it has provided a blank cheque for the Spanish Government and any others who may be inspired by this appalling behaviour. 

This double standard weakens Europe and the credibility of its political institutions; unless it acts quickly, there will be no way for Europe to restore faith in the eyes of many now reconsidering their stances.

Picture courtesy of Gary Paterson

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Comments

MauriceBishop

Fri, 10/06/2017 - 14:17

How can a person who claims to have "a good understanding of Europe’s operation, positives, and shortcoming" be surprised that the EU, which is a treaty organisation of member states, sides with the national government of Spain and doesn't want to do anything that encourage a separatist movement within Spain's borders?

Terry Entoure

Sat, 10/07/2017 - 10:49

This kind of misinformation is so frustrating and uninformed that I set up an account here just to comment on this article. This article does not suggest the author has any understanding of EU affairs at all. I'm usually a good-natured and contented individual but, honestly, this has made me hopping mad. It's nowhere near being the worst article about the EU I've read in the last 72 hours but it just so happened it was the one that finally tested my patience.

The EU has literally no powers to intervene in the policing or constitutional arrangements in Spain. Why? Because its member nations refused to give it a mandate on policing and constitutional arrangements. Ask yourself the following questions. 1. which institution of the EU has the power to intervene in internal affairs of a member state? 2. which office bearer of the EU has the power of intermediate intervention in a member's affairs without prior consultation and agreement of its membership? 3. which EU laws have been broken by Spain? 4. which treaty extended the EU's competence to include policing and constitutional affairs? The EU has not sided with Spain because its limited remit does not allow the EU to take sides. Talk of taking sides and "digging holes" is like saying my kettle is bad at cooking potatoes.

"Europe’s human rights and democracy body, the Council of Europe, has also said nothing on the matter." Why that might be? Might it be because this is a case for Spanish courts and Spanish law in the first instance? Might it be because no case has been taken to the ECtHR? Might it be because it doesn't want to prejudice a case that might be brought to the ECtHR by a Spanish citizen? Might it be because human rights are a delicate balance of competing issues? Might it be because it hasn't gathered the necessary evidence and witness statements? Might it be because no legal judgement has been made? I'm surprised that someone with a "a good understanding of Europe’s operation.." didn't think about any of that.

I'd like to take this opportunity to bust some further myths about the EU. To the credit of the author, none of these myths appear in the article but just in case they're being discussed I think it's worth talking about them now to save us all time later.

Social media is full of half-truths about Article 7 and Article 2 of the Lisbon Treaty. Take a read of Article 2 and decide for yourself if Spain is in breach. I would say that it isn't but I'll leave everyone to form their own opinion. Even if it was in breach, action could only be taken with agreement of the European Council (Article 7). How long do you think that might take? Would it prejudice the case if an office holder of an EU institution made a rash judgement on twitter? The EU is governed by law and process because its members require it to first reach consensus before taking action. It is what it is but that isn't what many people think it is. It most definitely isn't the federal super-state that Farage and the Daily Express complain about. I'd complain about that too if it was true.

The Charter on Fundamental Human Rights of the European Union does not apply in this instance. It only applies to EU law itself and EU institutions. Spanish policing is not an EU competence so is outside the remit of the Charter.

The chances of the EU ever achieving the power to suspend Spain or properly intervene are slim because it does not have those powers. What mechanism might be used? Well, if Spain finds itself kicked out of the European Council because it repeatedly failed to uphold the findings of the European Court of Human Rights then it would be expelled from the EU. The Article 50 mechanism might even be employed to make that happen. I just want to point out that multiple states are in dispute with the European Court of Human Rights without being expelled from the European Council. The UK is one of them. Justice is a process with a lengthy time frame. There are no meaningful indications that Spain intends to repeatedly reject the findings of the ECtHR because there exists no case so far and no judgement.

This kind of article leads everyone to direct their anger in the wrong direction. Directing anger at the EU just lets European political leaders off the hook. Direct your anger at Corbyn, Merkel, May, Johnson, Rajoy; lobby your MEP; encourage your MP to speak out. Writing about the EU "digging a hole" doesn't help anyone.

I'm glad there are political activists out there. They play an important role. I'm also glad there are journalists out there. They also play an important role. I do worry when the two become inseparable because it means that idiot losers like me have to do extra homework in their spare time to attempt to separate fact from fiction. Genuine question: is this article considered by commonspace to be journalism or activism?

My rant here wasn't entirely directed at the author of this article. I've been a little unfair here - only the first paragraph or two comes under that category, while the remainder is just directed at general misinformation I've seen from numerous indy supporters. This article was just another in a long series and my patience finally broke. I do feel better now and I hope that commonspace indulges the red mist that descended on me this morning.

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