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Catalan Independence Referendum

Volume 629: debated on Tuesday 10 October 2017

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the effect of the Catalan independence referendum on the EU.

I speak today as the new chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Catalonia and as someone who observed the referendum in Catalonia last Sunday. I was part of a parliamentary delegation from the European countries and beyond, which included my hon. Friends the Members for Dunfermline and West Fife (Douglas Chapman) and for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) and Lord Rennard from the other place.

This debate is about the effect of the independence referendum on the European Union. It is also our first brief opportunity, while staying in order I hope, Mr Bailey, to examine the referendum itself, the run-up to it, the events surrounding it and the consequent fallout, which continues. It is, indeed, a fast-changing situation. This evening the Catalan Parliament will debate the referendum, and it may declare independence, unilaterally, or some other status, postpone such a declaration or propose some other course—we just do not know. The Spanish Government may invoke article 155 of the Spanish constitution, taking power in Catalonia to themselves. Those are the events with which we may have to contend.

This debate is on the effect of the Catalan referendum on the EU. I should say that I applied for it some weeks ago, when I foresaw that the referendum could be contentious and was aware that the consequences for the EU had hardly broken the surface of political discourse here in the UK, and in most EU member states. That was well before the actions of the Central Government in Madrid and before the likely consequences had become clear.

Recently, we have only once been really close to a so-called internal enlargement of the EU, with the Scottish referendum. The debate then, in respect of the consequences for the EU, was passionate but, for many, inconclusive and unresolved. However, the issue will not go away. Thinking about the parts of Spain—Galicia, the Basque country perhaps—Belgium, and Scotland again perhaps, as far as I can see the EU is as queasy as ever about facing up to the reality.

We have a Minister here, so this is also an opportunity for the UK Government to make any comments they wish to MPs. As far as I know, the Government have chosen not to do so up to now, other than the reference by the Prime Minister yesterday, when questioned during her statement on the EU by the chair of the British-Spanish all-party parliamentary group, the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant). The Foreign Secretary has, I think, at some point tweeted that the referendum is a matter for Spain, that its constitution should be respected and that Spain is a close ally and a good friend. He also said that he was worried about the violence, but he made no condemnation of it.

In our experiences in Catalonia just last week, it struck all of us who attended, I think, that if that level of violence had been carried out by state police at a football match or a pop concert, the European Union and the Commission would have made a strong statement of condemnation, as would the British Government if a British team been involved in a game at which such violence had taken place.

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. He makes a fair point. In fact, someone remarked to me that had events such as those in Catalonia occurred further away—perhaps not in an EU member state, perhaps in a poorer country—politicians throughout Europe would have been on their feet preaching democratic values. The silence from so many EU leaders is extremely concerning.

In the European Parliament, the European Commission’s First Vice-President, Frans Timmermans, condemned the efforts to hold an independence referendum as a violation of the Spanish constitution and therefore, significantly, as a threat to the rule of law in all EU countries. He said:

“violence does not solve anything in politics”,

and I agree. He continued:

“However, it is of course a duty of any government to uphold the rule of law and this does sometimes require the proportionate use of force”.

Those of us who witnessed the actions of the police on 1 October, could scarcely believe that he used the word “proportionate”. What we saw was far from proportionate.

President Juncker said that the vote in Catalonia was not legal and that the matter was an internal one for Spain, and he called on all the relevant players to move to dialogue. Those statements are just not good enough. They do not address the political reality, which is that 90% of those who voted were for independence. This is, essentially, a political question, and the fact that the Spanish Government resort to the law—which is, in many ways, feasible—but do not address the political issue other than, of course, their seeming move towards taking control in Catalonia again, is extremely concerning. The echoes from Spain’s history are very troubling.

Belatedly, Enric Millo, the Spanish Government’s representative in Catalonia, said in a television interview:

“When I see these images, and more so when I know people have been hit, pushed and even one person hospitalised, I can’t help but regret it and apologise on behalf of the officers that intervened.”

There is a great deal in that statement with which I could take issue, including the word “intervened”, because it was much more than an intervention. I welcome the fact that the Spanish Government’s representative said that, but it is belated, because we have waited many days for that sort of response. The Spanish Prime Minister initially said a great number of things, such as that there was no referendum in Catalonia on Sunday—a denial of reality that took my breath away. He also asserted—I paraphrase—that the actions of the Spanish police were a model to be admired throughout the world. There is a huge reluctance on his part and the part of his minority Government to face up to the political reality of what is happening in Catalonia.

The hon. Gentleman was genuinely prescient in applying for the debate when he did. Does he agree that the job of politicians is to talk to people they disagree with, to try to find ways of agreeing without resorting to violence? Given that Catalonia has submitted 19 formal requests to the Spanish state for talks on the constitution and to date 19 of them have been rejected, does the hon. Gentleman agree that the honourable and courageous thing for the Spanish state to do now would be to offer to talk to Catalonia, to find a solution that respects the will of the people of Catalonia but also respects the desire of the rest of Spain to maintain its constitutional integrity?

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. The impression has been given, not least in the UK press, that Catalonia has moved to this position almost on a whim; that it is being deliberately obstructive and destructive. There is no time to go into the constitutional history of the matter, and I would probably not be in order if I did so, but suffice it to say that the status of Catalonia appeared to have been settled in 2006 with an agreement between Barcelona and Madrid. However, that agreement was overturned and then significantly eroded by the judgments of the constitutional court in 2010. A series of events led the Catalonian Government, almost in desperation, to move to a referendum.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing this debate. I am going to speak very briefly. The events we have seen over recent days and weeks are essentially state-sanctioned police brutality and abuse. There cannot be any tolerance or space for that in Europe—or any other part of the world, for that matter. We saw young people, women, older people—innocent, well-mannered Spaniards—abused, bloodied and attacked for having their say and expressing their views. I welcome the exercise of democracy, and I will always defend people’s right to vote and play their part in the democratic process.

I fully support this debate. I personally do not believe in independence, but I believe in democracy. Last week, we saw disgraceful scenes, and we should have condemned them earlier than we did. I will finish on this point. I have tabled early-day motion 333, and I hope hon. Members will support it.

Order. That was a mini-speech. The hon. Gentleman has the right to make an intervention if the speaker is prepared to give way, but he does not have the right to make a speech.

I concur with the points that the hon. Gentleman made and those that he intended to make, which I suspect are similar to mine. He moves me on to my next point.

Mr Millo said:

“people have been hit, pushed and even one person…was hospitalised”.

In fact, 900 ordinary people trying to vote were injured, clubbed, stamped upon, pulled by the hair, shot at with rubber bullets and tear gassed. In addition—we must say this—about 30 police officers were injured. “Hit and pushed” does not begin to describe what was seen.

The European Union’s position on this political and, some might say, moral and democratic vacuum is wholly unsatisfactory. A symbol of that is the fact that one country has offered to mediate—Switzerland.

Nobody can condone any breaches of the rule of law, and we ask both sides to uphold it, but in this Parliament we must be very careful about taking sides. This is essentially a matter for the Spanish Government to resolve with the Catalans. It looks like there is a bit of good will on both sides, and we must urge them to come to a peaceful settlement.

I agree entirely with what the hon. Gentleman said at the end of his remarks.

Having witnessed what I saw in Catalonia on Sunday, I think it is incumbent on anyone who believes in the fundamental values of democracy to stand up, explain their views and act as honourable and honest witnesses, which is what I am trying to do.

Indeed. There is a philosophical argument, which we cannot go into today, about the competing legitimacies of the democratic mandate. The Catalan Government have a majority, which was properly established at an election. The Government in Madrid have a different view and, although they are a minority Government, are also elected. We could pursue that at length, but I will not do so now.

The fact that Switzerland has offered to mediate is indicative of the European Union’s failure to act, which is very troubling indeed, given that these events affect a very large EU partner—the eurozone’s fourth largest economy. Catalonia itself hosts large multinational companies and provides a large proportion of Spain’s tax take.

I believe that a line has been crossed in terms of how an EU member state believes it is proper to treat its citizens. That attitude may be dangerously contagious at the other end of the European Union, where there are growing concerns about right-wing authoritarianism. It is also disappointing, given that the UK has direct experience of an independence referendum in Scotland, which was held peacefully and largely within an agenda of respect. I am not going to ask the Minister a large number of questions, but did the Spanish Government solicit any views or advice from the UK Government about the Scottish experience? Was any such advice offered of the UK Government’s own volition? Clearly, we have relevant experience.

It would be impossible for me to close without referring directly to last week’s events and the background to them—I will do my best to stay in order. We were in Catalonia for five days as part of the international delegation. By now, people across the world will have seen pictures on television—or more likely on their computer screens—of the long queues of people standing for hours in the rain; of people trying to vote and being beaten back by the police; of ballot boxes being confiscated; of the police shooting rubber bullets and tear gas at the crowds; and of women and old people staggering, their heads streaming with blood. They will have also seen the counter-demonstrations—this relates to the point that the hon. Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) made—made up not just of the old supporters of Franco’s fascist party singing their anthem and giving straight-arm salutes, but of ordinary Spanish people in Madrid and other cities. In Barcelona, they included some of the people who did not turn out to vote, who are split between people who want no change, people who want change but not independence, and people who just want all concerned to sit down and talk, which is a commendable view.

Let me conclude by talking about what the delegation saw on the ground and what our report says. We concluded that on the day, the referendum was carried out as fairly as possible. Officials worked hard to enable people to vote. The police had taken down the Catalan Government’s website, so in many cases officials could not access the electoral roll. Despite all that, the vote was, as far as we could see, as fair and scrupulous as possible.

The police’s behaviour was, in many cases, violent, oppressive and wholly disproportionate. I witnessed the police breaking into a polling station in the face of wholly non-violent opposition by hundreds of ordinary local people—men, women and even youths and children—who streamed to the polling station when they heard that the Guardia Civil were on their way. The ballot boxes containing many cast votes were carried out and away in heavy police vehicles. The crowd shouted, “Votarem!”—“We want to vote!”—and that was it: there was no violence.

Many people slept in polling stations overnight to ensure they could be opened in the morning. People showed astonishing patience, queuing in the rain for hours and meeting the police batons with determined and unshakeable non-violence, but nearly 900 people and 30 police were injured. That so many turned out is significant—2.26 million voters on a turnout of 42.3%—in the face of huge hostility from the central Government, reflected in the media beforehand, disruption of the process and widely reported police violence from the start.

I do not know what will become of all this. Given the Spanish Government’s attitude, many have said that they had already lost the argument before the referendum was held and would still have lost the argument had there been a majority against independence, which there was not, because minds have been changed. It was clear to me that for many Catalans, this had become a vote not just on independence but on a sticking point—on the democratic right to have a say and on the core European values of democracy, openness and self-determination. It was impeded and, in places, thwarted violently by a central Government whom they saw as being of little or no relevance to them, at best. That has profound significance for all parts of Europe, and the response from Governments and the EU itself has been wholly wanting.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams) on securing this important debate and on all his work as chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on Catalonia. The Minister for Europe and the Americas is travelling on ministerial duties, which I am afraid is why I am responding on behalf of the Government. I am delighted to do so for a number of reasons. I have a holiday home in Majorca, in the Balearic Islands, where some of the issues are also playing out, so I am not entirely unaware of them.

Hon. Members, in the course of speechettes or interventions, have made several points and there is understandably strong feeling across various shades of opinion about what is happening in Catalonia. It is entirely right and understandable that this place should have a keen interest in Spain, which is after all one of our closest and strongest European friends and allies. As many hon. Members know, we have a significant expatriate population living in Spain, including a significant number in the Catalonian region.

To be clear, while we must defend important principles brought into question by developments in Catalonia, we should remember that Spain is a sovereign nation and that ultimately—as my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) rightly pointed out—the situation in Catalonia is a matter for Spain to resolve, in accordance with Spanish law and democratic principles.

Tonight at 5 o’clock, the Catalan Government will make a statement on how they see their future and whether they are to go for independence or another way. That is a decision for them. Given that to date Spain has been unwilling to talk or to accept mediation, and indeed is still issuing threats to Catalan parliamentarians, how does the Minister think that the British Government will react this evening? What kind of discussions do the Government hope to have with the EU and the Spanish Government, to use our influence in the region to ensure that mediation takes place and that there is a peaceful settlement rather than anyone resorting to the recent levels of violence that were totally unacceptable?

It is important to recognise that this is a fast evolving situation, as everyone has said. Let me confirm, in answer to the direct question from the hon. Member for Arfon, that over the past year the Spanish Government have made no attempt to ask our advice, nor have we solicited to offer any advice, about the conduct of the referendum or anything else. The one thing we can do, as a member of the European Union and as a sovereign nation and friend of Spain, is to make the relevant point that we want to dampen down some of the high spirits and passions that are understandably being experienced on the issue.

In reality, as many will recognise, there is a risk that the Spanish Government will trigger article 155 of the 1978 constitution, to take away elements of Catalonian self-government. At the moment, that would not be a desirable state of affairs, so we all await the events of this evening. There is clear strength of feeling on both sides of the argument, as the hon. Gentleman rightly pointed out.

I have a set text and am aware of the potential for running out of time, but if I can come back to the hon. Gentleman I will do so.

The Catalan regional Government are meeting today and, as has been pointed out, the possibility of some unilateral declaration of independence hangs in the air, despite the low turnout in last week’s vote and recent broader polling—if one believes opinion polling in politics these days—to suggest that a majority of Catalans would oppose independence. The decisions that the Catalan regional authorities take today and their consequences will affect the wellbeing and prosperity of not only all the people they represent, but all those throughout Spain. I hope, therefore, that they will consider very carefully the decisions that they take tonight, and the implications for the future.

As the hon. Member for Arfon rightly pointed out, the debate was initially to be about the effect of the Catalonia referendum on the EU, but events have moved on. President Juncker, in common with many European partners, shares the analysis that Catalonia is an internal matter for Spain. He has made clear the EU’s legal position that Catalonia would have to leave the EU if it became legally independent, which would have consequences for the people of the region, including visitors and businesses, some of whom are already considering their future, given the actions of the Catalan regional Government over the past couple of weeks.

Legal independence, however, is a hypothetical scenario not related to recent events, but where the hon. Gentleman is right—he recognises this—the sensitivities around the issue are profound in many European states, not only here in the UK but throughout Europe. That is one of the many reasons why it is probably sensible to look at the Swiss playing a mediating role, given the temptation for a number of separatist groups to draw a direct parallel with the situation in Catalonia that may not necessarily exist for their own part of Europe.

I know the Minister is running out of time, but may I caution him and anyone else about Swiss mediation, because we would not want them to mediate in the matter of Gibraltar?

That would obviously be an approved mediation in so far as both sides were keen and accepted that that should happen. Otherwise, as I said, it is an internal matter.

We should be clear that the purported referendum held on 1 October was illegal. On 7 September, almost a month before the vote took place, the Spanish constitutional court suspended the legislation calling for a referendum, making it clear that such an act would be illegal. None of the Opposition parties in the Catalan Parliament, which represent 51% of the Catalan electorate, considers that referendum to be valid. The vote was knowingly held in breach of the Spanish constitution and was therefore an attempt to undermine the rule of law. Not only that, it was a breach of the law of Catalonia itself, which is something that has been largely overlooked, but its importance must not be understated. The reason that that must not be understated is that the rule of law is the essential foundation of any democratic society. The issue is not hypothetical but of tremendous importance to the EU and to us all.

Forgive me, I will not, because I am running out of time.

The rule of law underpins all the values, rights and freedoms that are fundamental to our way of life. The UK Government feel strongly that it is in the interests of the UK and of the EU to defend that principle robustly. Failure to do so would diminish us all. What example would we be setting if we encouraged Governments around the world to embrace the rule of law, but did not uphold or defend it close to home?

For the people of Spain—there is a lot of history in this, as we all know about that country—the 1978 constitution has a particular significance. It was a key moment in the country’s peaceful transition to democracy after decades of dictatorship. The constitution was approved by the whole of Spain, including Catalonia, and it does not permit the Government to authorise the secession of any region of the country. That is the very basis on which the Spanish constitutional court deemed the referendum illegal. When supporters of the referendum speak of the democratic rights of or self-determination for the people of Catalonia, we should remember that the Spanish constitution has protected the rights of Catalans and all Spaniards for several decades in Spain’s modern democracy. Those are the very rights that the Catalan regional Government seek to flout.

I have said that developments in Catalonia are a matter for Spain and Spanish constitutional law and democracy. Nevertheless, it is incumbent on the UK, European partners and like-minded democracies—I accept this—to stand up for the principles on which our own liberty depends. That is why the UK Government will continue to make it clear that we support the rule of law and respect for the Spanish constitution. Failure to do so risks undermining the cornerstone of any functioning democracy and European values.

I very much appreciate the concern expressed by many hon. Members about the actions of the Spanish authorities and the alleged excessive use of force. All of us who watched the television coverage were shocked by the events. No one wants to see violence on the streets. The role of the police is to uphold the rule of law, which must be respected by us all. The Spanish Government have apologised for what took place, which I hope will be helpful in finding a constructive way forward.

Aside from matters of principle, it is important to say that Spain is a great friend and ally of the United Kingdom and a key player in the EU. Its strength and unity matter to all of us. In July this year, Her Majesty the Queen hosted King Felipe and Queen Letizia on the first state visit to the UK by a Spanish monarch in 30 years. That visit was a great success and showed off our deep economic, political, cultural and academic ties.

Democracy is about more than just voting. Every democracy has its own rules, laws and procedures, setting out both rights and responsibilities. The ability of the UK and the EU to promote fair and free societies elsewhere in the world would be significantly affected if we compromised our commitment to those principles here in Europe. This Government continue to support a strong and unified Spain as a key partner for the UK and an influential actor in the EU now and in the future.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.