Catalonia: why are the former leaders of the autonomous region being arrested?

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Ing. Philip Micallef @ Diplomatique.Expert

Ing Micallef’s familiarity with Catalonia arises from fact that he lived and worked there from 1987 to 1992 and have been in continual contact with the region since then.

PhilipMicallefWhat is happening in Catalonia? Why was Carles Pugdemont, the ex President of the Generalitat of Catalonia arrested in Germany a few days back when he was returning to his self-imposed exile home in Belgium from Finland? Other members of his cabinet fled Spain in October while others were arrested and are in Spanish jails.  To an outsider this might seem very strange. The situation can’t be appraised properly without a context and this context is the Spanish Constitution.

After the death of the dictator Franco, Spain overwhelmingly voted for a new Constitution in 1978.  The Constitution has been the supreme law of the country since 1978 and interestingly enough the Catalans were very enthusiastic and positive about this Constitution.  The Catalan politician and lawyer Miguel Roca born in France because his father was an exiled Catalan nationalist is widely recognised as one of the “fathers of the Spanish Constitution”.

According to Article 1 of the 1978 Spanish Constitution “national sovereignty belongs to the Spanish people from whom all State powers emanate”. Article 2 refers to the “indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation, the common and indivisible homeland of all Spaniards” while it protects “the right to autonomy of the nationalities and regions of which it is composed and the solidarity among them all”. The capacity to hold referenda is regulated by Article 92 of the Constitution: they must be called by the King on the prime minister’s advice with regard to “political decisions of special importance” provided that it involves “all citizens”. Article 2 makes it clear that the decision to call for such a consultation is an exclusive competence of the State and not of any autonomous region.

On 1st October 2017 an unofficial referendum on instructions of the Catalan Parliament took place in Catalonia over whether or not the region should break away from Spain and become an independent country. According to the Spanish Constitution the Region had no powers to call for such a referendum.  The region has some powers to make decisions on how it is run but is still an integral part of the country of Spain.  The referendum vote held on 1st October 2017 was organized and supported by the region’s Government of which Carles Pugdemont was President.

The Spanish Central Government declared this referendum illegal, null and void and urged people not to vote.   2.2 million people were reported to have voted out of the 5.3 million people who could have voted.  Irregularities reported were widespread.  According to the Catalan authorities, just under 90% of those who voted backed independence.  However, the national Government in Madrid reiterated that the vote was illegal and sent Police to try to prevail it from happening.  There were many protests and although many agreed with the Spanish Government’s stance on the Constitution they disagreed with the violent way that the police tried to stop what was happening.  The local Catalan Police supported the referendum when according to the Spanish Government should have exercised their power by stopping it from happening.

Following the referendum the Catalan Parliament held a vote and declared independence without fixing any dates.  Madrid reacted by having Prime Minster Mariano Rajoy trigger Article 155 Emergency Powers of the Constitution: sacking the Catalan regional Government, dissolving Catalan Parliament and declaring a snap Catalan regional election for 21 December 2017.

Carles Pugdemont, was stripped of his Presidency and together with other four ministers fled the country in fear of getting arrested and accused of rebellion for not respecting the Spanish Constitution.  Other ex-ministers who did not flee were imprisoned in Spain.

Elections were held on 21st December 2017 and the anti-independence Party Ciudadanos became the largest party in Catalonia but did not have enough seats in the 135 seat Catalan Parliament to govern with other anti-independence parties.  The pro-independence parties made up of CUP (Popular Unity), ERC (Catalan Republican Party) and J x Cat (Together for Catalonia) won with a slim majority of 47.5 % of votes and 70 seats.

Despite the slim majority the pro-independence parties have not managed to form a regional Government.

The line of reasoning of the Central Spanish Government is very simple:  the Constitution has to be observed by all including Catalan politicians.  They cannot take the law in their hands and unilaterally declare independence.  There are legal avenues that need to be pursued.  To answer the question of the title of this article, the Spanish Government arrested the Catalan leaders for breaking the law and blatantly going against the Constitution of 1978 and these leaders are facing charges of sedition and rebellion.

Unfortunately, during this crisis the Catalan economy has suffered. Thousands of businesses including major banks and energy firms have moved their headquarters out of the region.  Tourism dropped by 12% since the start of the crisis in the last quarter of 2017.  The stance of the Spanish Government that the Constitution has to be observed at all times and under all circumstances is clear yet there are warnings that this issue is damaging Spain’s democratic credentials and some “out of the box”, fresh thinking and goodwill is needed to solve this long drawn impasse.


About the author

Ing. Philip Micallef has over thirty years experience in middle and senior management roles in both the public and private sectors in Malta, Italy, Switzerland, France, Spain and Bermuda. He holds a Bachelor of Science in Engineering B.Sc(Eng.) degree in Electrical Engineering specialising in telecommunications from the University of Malta.  Also holds a Masters in Business Administration from the University of Warwick, United Kingdom. Between 1999 and 2002 served as non executive Director on the Board of Directors of Maltacom, the largest telecommunications company in Malta at the time. He was appointed from 2006 to 2009 member of the Council of the University of Malta, a body equivalent to a board of directors.
Philip’s familiarity with Catalonia arises from fact that I lived and worked there from 1987 to 1992 and have been in continual contact with the region since then.


Areas of Expertise : Telecommunications, Airline Business, Spanish Politics

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