By a Newsnet reporter
A Spanish vice-president of the European Parliament has found himself at the centre of an angry row after demanding during an interview on the Spanish television channel Intereconomia that the Madrid government of the Partido Popular send in the Guardia Civil to quash Catalan attempts to hold an independence referendum.
The remarks by Alejo Vidal-Quadras, also a representative of the Partido Popular, provoked more than 40,000 letters of complaint to Martin Schulz, president of the European Parliament, demanding that the Parliament clarify that Mr Vidal-Quadras’ views were not those of the European Parliament.
In an unusual step, Mr Schulz has now written to all members of the European Parliament to distance himself and the Parliament from Mr Vidal-Quadras’ television statement. Mr Schulz stressed that Mr Vidal-Quadras was speaking in a purely personal capacity on an internal Spanish affair.
Mr Schulz’s letter said:
“As you know, this chamber is completely committed to the principle of liberty of expression, as well as the respect of the rights of all European citizens to demonstrate peacefully.
“In the first place, I can assure you that the declarations were not made by Vidal-Quadras in his capacity of vice-president of the European Parliament. They reflect a personal opinion made within the context of national politics.
“Nevertheless, it does not fall to a president of the European Parliament to judge the content of declarations made by a member, nor to take disciplinary measures. It falls to the voters of Catalonia to judge this declaration.”
The protests against Mr Vidal-Quadras were sparked off by remarks he made while speaking on Friday on Spanish television. The veteran Partido Popular MEP sought the intervention of the the Guardia Civil in Catalonia in response to the proposal of the Catalan Parliament to hold a referendum on independence, demanding that Spanish deputy Prime Minister Soraya Sáenz (also of the PP), prepare a “general of a brigade of the Guardia Civil” against Catalan “rebels”, and urged the Spanish government that:
… the [Catalan] parliament is dissolved, the government of the Generalitat [the autonomous government of Catalonia] is sent home, and the delegation of the [central] government takes control of Catalonia.
“And the general, whom I mentioned before, would take power from the Mossos d’Esquadra [the autonomous Catalan police force], and that would be that.
“And if the people take to the street, let them, but they won’t be able to demonstrate for more than a month, demonstrations can’t fill the stomach. The Government, if they persist in this attitude of rebellion, has to intervene in the rebel autonomy. There is no other way.”
The letter from Mr Schulz has not led Mr Vidal-Quadras to retract his previous statement. Mr Vidal Quadras has now sent his own letter to all members of the European Parliament. In his letter the Barcelona born politician claims that Catalan nationalism is “neither peaceful nor democratic”, and calls the Catalans “ungrateful”, saying of the referendum plan:
“An attack of this magnitude on the constitutional order represents the very dangerous exercise of ingratitude, of lack of solidarity, and irresponsibility, inappropriate for European political leaders who possess even a modicum of common sense.”
Mr Vidal-Quadras goes on to put the blame for Catalonia’s current economic woes squarely on “thirty years of nationalist, interventionist and pilfering governments”, despite the fact that Catalonia, like Scotland, is not permitted to raise its own taxes and has only limited levers of control over its economy.
The increasingly hysterical condemnation by right wing Spanish politicians of the Catalan referendum plans are a sign that Madrid fears it is losing control of the situation in Catalonia, where there is every indication that the Catalan government will press ahead with its plan irrespective of Madrid’s objections. Recent opinion polls suggest that independence would be supported by a clear majority of the Catalan population.
Speaking on Wednesday, Artur Mas, leader of the Catalan Government, said that an independent Catalonia was “perfectly viable”, and added:
“We produce the same as Portugal, which has 10 million inhabitants, with 7.5 million. We have an economy equivalent to that of other relatively small European countries. And more, we have an immense capacity to open ourselves to the outside, with foreign companies and investment.”
He added: “It is fundamental that in the coming legislature the Catalans exercise the right to decide their own future. And on the horizon there must be room for Catalonia to have its own state. We cannot reject formulating our future in terms of our own state within the EU, with bridges to the Spanish state and to other European states.”
On Wednesday, members of the Catalanist faction of the Partit Socialiste Català (roughly equivalent to the Labour party in Scotland), announced that they would support attempts to create a Catalan state “within Spain or an Iberian union”.
The Partido Popular politician’s call for the intervention of the Guardia Civil to prevent the Catalan referendum is especially incendiary in the context of Spanish political history. The Guardia Civil is traditionally hated and feared by the Spanish left and those supporting Catalan, Basque, Galician and Canary Island self-determination.
Spain has a number of distinct police forces. The Guardia Civil is a national force, run along military lines, which was originally set up in the 19th century to patrol rural highways. It soon became an agent for central government control. During the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, the Guardia Civil provided a major bastion of support for the dictator General Franco, and was directly involved in the repression, torture, and mass imprisonment which followed his siezure of power.
On 23 February 1981, six years after the death of General Franco, a Colonel in the Guardia Civil, Antonio Tejero, led an abortive coup attempt against the newly established democratic government. The Guardia Civil was also implicated in the Spanish Government’s “dirty war” against Basque nationalism during the 1980s, which saw a number of state-sanctioned assassinations and cases of torture.