This week, pro-democracy activists were handed down lengthy prison sentences. Their leader, forced to live in exile, condemned the authorities’ “repression”. No, I’m not describing any kind of clampdown in Hong Kong. Those sent to prison were not living in Africa or Venezuela. They were in Spain – a supposedly civilised European state.
Nine leaders of the Catalan nationalist movement have been imprisoned for organising an independence “referendum” in 2017. The poll they ran was, by any objective measure, neither free nor fair. The Spanish government would have been entirely justified to have simply ignored it. But they did much more than that, incarcerating those that ran it, inflaming opinion, and stoking up precisely the separatist sentiments that they fear.
To appreciate quite how draconian the behaviour of the Spanish state has been, conduct this little thought experiment. Imagine for a moment that it was Nicola Sturgeon of the SNP who had been forced to flee Scotland after running an impromptu poll. Try to contemplate a scenario under which Ian Blackford MP had been sentenced to time in Wormwood Scrubs.
It’s hard to entertain that idea, even momentarily. But perhaps Spain’s behaviour is shocking only if you start from the assumption that she is a serious nation state, to be judged by the same standards that we might judge ourselves. It is clear from her actions that she isn’t.
But it is not only the actions of Spain that are revealing. This sordid episode tells us what the EU is really about, too. As nine Catalan leaders were locked up for their beliefs, those EU institutions we are endlessly led to believe exist to safeguard freedom and democracy stayed silent.
The European Commission, quick to proclaim its commitment to “European values” of human dignity and freedom, refused to condemn an actual instance of those values being flouted. The European Parliament, which likes to believe it has democratic legitimacy, looked the other way as elected officials in a European country were carted off to their cells.
Why such double standards? Why does the EU remain silent when one of its own violates the norms of decency and democracy? Precisely because the Madrid government is “one of its own”, a supplicant state.
What the silence of the EU establishment proclaims loudly is that the EU is an imperial project. Like the Habsburg empire before it, its basic business model is to co-opt local elites into its embrace. The local elite that hold office in Madrid are its clients. They accept the EU’s supremacy, subsidies and support. Faced with upstarts in Catalonia wanting to break away, Madrid gets a free pass.
Ever since the Madrid government began to clamp down on the leaders of the Catalan separatist movement, EU officials have clung to the excuse that what Madrid does is up to Madrid – it’s an “internal matter”, they say.
Why might the European Union suddenly discover respect for the internal affairs of its member states? Not because of any sudden conversion to the principle of national sovereignty, but because it suits its ambitions.
European leaders have been more critical about Poland’s leader, Jarosław Kaczyński, who had the temerity to win an election on Sunday, than they have been of Madrid. Unlike the leaders of a supplicant state in Madrid, the government of Poland is prepared to assert itself. Kaczyński is not a supplicant ruler. And neither, of course, is Boris Johnson. Which perhaps explains why, while EU president Donald Tusk declared there to be a “special place in hell” for the leaders of the Leave campaign, he has yet to find the time to criticise the imprisonment of politicians in Spain.
Last month, Guy Verhofstadt, one-time leader of the European Parliament, did manage to find the time to come to the UK. Standing shoulder to shoulder with Jo Swinson of the Lib Dems, he openly called on the EU to turn itself into an empire and encouraged our MPs to overturn the UK’s Brexit referendum result.
Intervening in the internal affairs of member states is acceptable if it is to support local elites who will accept their supplicant status, you see. Fortunately in Britain we have free and fair elections to decide who our local elites might be.