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House of Commons Hansard
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02 November 2017
Volume 630

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(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on the political situation in Catalonia.

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The events of the past few weeks in Catalonia are a matter of public record. The Catalonian authorities held a referendum on independence on 1 October that was found by the Spanish courts to be illegal under the Spanish constitution. Holding it was, therefore, illegal and an attempt to undermine the rule of law. The Catalan Parliament then unilaterally declared independence on 27 October. Her Majesty’s Government do not and will not recognise this declaration of independence. It is based on a vote that was declared illegal by the Spanish courts and we continue to want to see the rule of law upheld, the Spanish constitution respected and Spanish unity preserved.

The situation in Catalonia is an internal matter for Spain and its people. The Spanish Government have set a date—21 December—for regional elections. This provides a path to return to the rule of law, which is an important principle that the UK strongly supports, and it is for all the people of Catalonia to have their say through democratic processes that are consistent with the Spanish constitution. I remind the House that Spain is a close ally and a good friend whose strength and unity matter to us. We consider it essential that the rule of law be upheld and the Spanish constitution respected.

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I am asking the Government to act in two ways: to call on the parties in Catalonia to enter into talks and to offer their good offices to facilitate progress. No one can doubt that this is eventually a political matter, rather than a legal one. Getting both parties to talk is the way forward. In this situation, the UK Government have a responsibility and an opportunity.

First, they must do all they can to ensure the safety and security of UK citizens living in Catalonia. Secondly, this is happening in our neighbourhood as we are a leading European power, and a member of the Council of Europe, the EU, NATO and the United Nations Security Council. Thirdly, uniquely, the UK Government have recent experience of an independence referendum carried out in Scotland, largely by agreement. We have some advice to offer. And, of course, the hard-won peace agreement in Northern Ireland rests partly on the opportunity there was for all to have their say in a referendum.

In my debate on Catalonia on 10 October, the Minister replying said that no request for advice had been made by the Spanish Government, and none had been offered by the UK Government. I now ask that that offer be made.

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I do not share the hon. Gentleman’s view of how Britain should take an interest in the internal affairs of Spain. Talks for Spain are an internal matter. This is, indeed, a legal matter. We held an independence referendum, but it was within the law; in the case of Spain, it was not. In respect of UK citizens, I believe I am right in saying that we have had no reported consular problems, and I obviously hope that that remains the case.

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May I just take up that point? Is it not a cause for celebration, first, that at least no violence has erupted of a significant nature in Spain? Secondly, is not the way in which we handle independence questions—whichever side we are on in relation to Scottish independence—a cause for satisfaction and an example to others?

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Obviously, there were scenes on television of some acts of violence, and they are not the sort of things we want to see, but the fundamental point is whether this declaration of independence or the referendum were legal, and they were not.

On the comparison between Scotland and Catalonia, no two situations are alike, and each needs to be considered in its own legal and constitutional context. What is clear is that, in this case, the vote and subsequent actions in the Catalan Parliament were neither legal nor constitutional.

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Thank you, Mr Speaker, for this urgent question. I also thank the hon. Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams) for securing it. I was interested to hear his contribution, and I agree with some of the things he said.

We are currently in a very dangerous position, where the future of Catalonia has been turned into a binary choice—a false choice, an impossible choice—between, on the one hand, a unilateral declaration of independence and, on the other, direct rule from Madrid. I do not believe that either choice offers a satisfactory solution to this crisis or that either choice is what the majority of Catalans or Spaniards actually want. I believe that the majority want to see peaceful, sensible dialogue between the parties to try and find a resolution. That is what the socialist party of Catalonia and the socialist party of Spain support, and we support our sister parties in that endeavour.

But what we are currently seeing from the Government of Spain and the Government of Catalonia is as far from peaceful and sensible dialogue as it is possible to get. From Madrid, we see the use of officially sanctioned violence and intimidation by the police and scenes that are horrific to watch. That has been followed over the last month by equally heavy-handed political tactics. From Barcelona, we see a unilateral declaration of independence based on a referendum that had no constitutional basis in Spanish law and in which around 30% of Catalan residents were not permitted to take part and a further 40% chose not to take part.

Neither of those approaches offers a sustainable way forward and neither is a fair or democratic way to proceed; my fear is that the longer we are stuck with this false, binary choice, the deeper and more entrenched the divisions will become and the harder it will be to negotiate a peaceful solution. So, as a matter of urgency, we call on both sides to take a step back, to ease the confrontational rhetoric and heavy-handed tactics, and to start listening to what the majority of people in Spain and Catalonia actually want, which is peace, dialogue and an end to division.

What are the UK Government doing to promote that, or does Brexit suck so much life from our ability to have any influence in Europe that the honest answer is, “Not a lot”?

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I agree with the second part, at least, of the right hon. Lady’s response—

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Not a lot.

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As usual, not a lot. I agree that these things were illegal and against the rule of law. However, I disagree with how the right hon. Lady portrays this choice. This is not a binary choice in the way she describes; it is a binary choice between upholding the rule of law or not.

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I perfectly understand my right hon. Friend’s reluctance to interfere in Spanish internal affairs and I respect the Foreign Office’s view that the referendum was illegal, although my constituents were disturbed to see Spanish police removing ballot boxes and people being prevented from voting. We do, however, have a strong legitimate interest in how Spain regards our sovereign citizens in Gibraltar. Will he confirm that Spain respects their wishes to remain British?

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My hon. Friend draws a false parallel between Gibraltar and Catalonia. I repeat that we fully support Spain as it upholds the working of its constitution and will stand with it in opposing illegality wherever we see it.

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A lot of fake news has come out of Catalonia, not least regarding the number of casualties, which was grossly inflated by the Catalan authorities. It was reported on the television that one woman had had every finger broken, one by one, by the police, but she later went on television herself to say that this was simply untrue—that none of her fingers had been broken. Will the Minister assure us that if in this country a councillor were to agree an illegal budget they would be pursued by the law, that being the law of this land, and that we will respect the law of other countries when it is pursued there?

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I agree very strongly with the hon. Gentleman. Each country has its laws, and those laws, having been made by a sovereign Parliament—do not forget that Spain is a properly working democracy—should be upheld. We have been robust in saying so. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has spoken to Prime Minister Rajoy, I have spoken several times to the Spanish ambassador in the UK, and we issued a very firm statement last week, when the declaration of independence was made, standing firmly with Spain as it upholds the workings of its constitution.

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In the light of the situation in Catalonia, do the Government need to provide additional guidance not only to the tens of thousands of Brits living there but to the hundreds of thousands planning on holidaying there next year?

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I would like to think that much of life can continue as normal and I would not want to dissuade anyone wanting to be a tourist in Spain from going there. In terms of demonstrations or violence, things have very much settled down—they were tightly focused in the first place—so I hope that people will look on Spain as a properly working country to which they want to go as tourists. In the same spirit, we welcome Spanish people coming here.

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Will the Minister accept that the most fundamental of all principles is the right of the people to determine their own future? Does he not recall that the unilateral declarations of independence by the United States of America, the Republic of Ireland, Norway and Slovenia were all illegal and unconstitutional, and that the actions of Gandhi, Mandela and many others were also illegal and unconstitutional? Does he agree that if the law makes it illegal to express an opinion, the law must be changed, not the people?

How can the Minister say that Spain is upholding the rule of law when there is conclusive evidence of the Spanish state sending people into demonstrations to incite violence against the police and of excessive police brutality against unarmed citizens doing nothing other than attempting to express a view? How can it be the rule of law to threaten to arrest a blogger who blogs an opinion that the Prime Minister or the King do not agree with? Will he accept that if this had happened in other countries outside the EU the UK would already be making representations that it had to stop, because the UK takes pride in not allowing national borders to stand in the way of respect for fundamental human rights? Will the Government agree to put pressure on the EU to offer to act as a mediator so that the wishes of the people of Catalonia and of Spain can be resolved in a way that does not involve any further unlawful acts by the Spanish state?

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By and large, in response to almost everything the hon. Gentleman said, the answer is no. I consider this an internal matter. It is not for other countries to instruct a country on how to perform within the proper workings of its constitution. Catalonia and Scotland are not exactly the same as countries horribly oppressed by the Soviet Union, and we should not draw parallels between quite different situations. As the Spanish courts have ruled, the vote was not held within the Spanish legal and constitutional framework. The Scottish referendum, on the other hand, was a legal referendum held following the signature of the Edinburgh agreement between the Scottish Government and the UK Government and was overseen by the Electoral Commission.

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My right hon. Friend is aware that both Spain and this country are members of the Council of Europe and as such work with the Venice Commission, which has a code of practice on referendums. That code of practice is getting quite ancient: I think it was first drafted back in 2006. Does he agree that if a country is a member of the Council of Europe and subscribes to the Venice Commission, it is important that its referendums are held under the rule of law, and that that must be maintained and upheld?

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The House will be grateful to my right hon. Friend for the benefit of her wisdom. Indeed, yes—if that is what the code of conduct says and it is clear, then countries should do things within the rule of law. In the case of the Catalonian referendum and the subsequent declaration, both were not.

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Like the Bourbon kings, the Spanish authorities have

“learned nothing and forgotten nothing.”

Would it not be good, as a friend of Spain, if we, with the EU, were to suggest that the country holds a legally binding referendum on the future of Catalonia so that then everyone could be satisfied?

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The Spanish are entitled to do whatever they choose to do within the workings of their constitution, but it is not for us to tell them exactly how to go about it—it is for them to work it out themselves as a functioning democracy.

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May I welcome the measured approach that my right hon. Friend the Minister is taking? Could he perhaps tell me how Her Majesty’s Government would approach a situation in which a foreign power was advising us on how to run our own internal affairs?

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I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Indeed, I hope that his Committee might look in some respects at the comparative situations across the world. I am confident that if it were to do so, it would conclude things very much along the lines of what I have been saying to the House today.

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If the UK Government do not get involved in the internal affairs of foreign countries, does that not render the work of a lot of ambassadors and a lot of the work of his Department useless from here on in? Why do the Government pick and choose what unilateral declarations of independence or rights of self-determination they recognise?

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Because of the constitutions and the rule of law within which they work.

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My constituents have sent me a number of emails about this, and I was visited in my constituency surgery by a Catalonian/Spanish constituent. Does the Minister agree that the policing style of the original poll was heavy-handed, and that the only way forward is through peaceful dialogue towards a resolution?

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I am reluctant to speculate, but one interpretation that has been put on the violence is that the Catalonian police declined to take orders from central Government. I do not know whether that is true, and it is not for me to pass judgment on it. It is clear, however, that this was an illegal referendum that is therefore invalid and against the rule of law, so it counts for nothing.

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There are lessons that could be learned from this situation. There are many reports that the economic impact on Catalonia will be catastrophic, with many businesses leaving the region as a result. Will the Minister have a chat with his Treasury colleagues and commission some work on the economic impact of this illegal referendum and what it will do to the Catalonian economy?

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Again, it is not for us to deploy our resources to make such a calculation. Proper scrutiny of the economy of Catalonia will soon make the facts apparent one way or another.

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The Minister is right to be careful about drawing parallels between Catalonia and Scotland, but there is one similarity. The now-dissolved Catalonian Parliament had a majority in favour of holding an independence referendum, just as Scotland did in 2011. The Scottish Parliament did not, under the British constitution, have the power to hold that referendum, but, to the UK Government’s credit, they agreed a process with Alex Salmond whereby a legal referendum could be held. All we are asking is for the Minister to use his good offices and his positive experience to suggest a similar approach to our Spanish allies.

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That is entirely up to the Government of Spain. In the same way as this House is sovereign and agreed what to do with Scotland, it is up to the Parliament of Spain to decide how it wishes to proceed. It is not for us to tell Spain which course to take.

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Does the Minister agree that notwithstanding the legality or otherwise of the referendum, there is an enormous duty on all parties to speak about reconciliation, peace and moving forward?

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The best way to get reconciliation is for politicians in Catalonia to start by saying that they will act within the rule of law and the workings of the Spanish constitution. Then, perhaps, they would stand a greater chance of getting somewhere.

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What we are witnessing in Catalonia is the return of tyranny to western Europe, and history will not look kindly on those who turn a blind eye to the actions of the Spanish Government. Should not the British Government now defend the values of peace and democracy, and unreservedly condemn the repression of the Catalan people, their political leaders and their democratic institutions?

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I am afraid I consider the comments of the hon. Gentleman that Spain is returning to tyranny nonsensical, and somewhat ruder even than that.

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As a Scot, the recent inexcusable violence—it is inexcusable, whatever prompted it—in Catalonia has brought home to me how important it was that the coalition Government enabled the legal referendum of which we have spoken and ensured that there was a proper democratic dialogue. Does the Minister not agree that perhaps he could speak to his Spanish counterpart, impart the wisdom of having taken that approach and counsel them that perhaps a reasonable and conciliatory approach might prevent more violence and further deterioration?

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I have enjoyed, for much of the last year, imparting enormous wisdom to many counterparts across the world.

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On this issue, the UK Government have more faces than Big Ben. During the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence, they were quite happy for international Governments all over the world to comment on Scottish questions, so I think the idea that the UK Government are staying out of this is laughable. Will the UK Government follow the advice of the Scottish Government and at least allow people to recognise this and move towards some sort of legally binding referendum?

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I did not quite hear the hon. Gentleman. Was he asking us to recognise the independence?

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A legally binding referendum.

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I think this is an internal matter for Spain. Now that they have taken over the government of Catalonia, the next steps can be determined by the Spanish themselves, not by us.

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The Minister of State started by saying that Spain was a respected and good friend and ally. If any of our good friends and allies were to go around beating people in the street, we would step in and take action to stop them from doing so. Why will the Minister not do that for Spain?

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I believe I have already commented on that. I think the hon. Lady has rather lost perspective in making that judgment.

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The Minister and the Government like to hide behind Spain’s rule of law and its constitution. How would he respond to Alfred de Zayas, a UN expert, who has said that Spain is in breach of several articles—relating to human rights—of the international covenant on civil and political rights, which is itself enshrined in the Spanish constitution? The Spanish Government are flouting the rule of law and their own constitution.

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We do not hide behind the rule of law. We undertake to abide by it, as should everybody in this House.