José Borrell’s Mission Impossible
José Borrell’s job is to defend Spain’s indivisibility, to repair Spain’s damaged image, to discredit the pro-independence movement in his native Catalonia, to convince the world that Spain’s new Emperor is wearing fine new clothes and to reject all criticism of Spain as an unfair result of hispanophobia and the prevalence of the “Black Legend”. In short, Mr Borrell is on a world tour presenting Spain as a victim.
Borrell came out of retirement in June and the four months he has been in the job have been characterised by confusion over his message, linguistic difficulties and embarrassing slip-ups. Beyond its borders, the primacy of the unity of Spain, whatever its cost, is harder to sell than it is at home, and foreign journalists tend to ask trickier questions than their tame Spanish counterparts. However, there is little need for the Minister to worry. Though few can be in any doubt as to the real nature of the Spanish State by now, the likelihood of a major nation or the EU officially making anything but cooing noises in José’s direction seems to be slight.
On his latest trip, to the States, Borrell said that “not only in the USA but also in Europe, the UK … they think that, in Spain, Franco’s still alive”. Perhaps, while trying to explain the official “brand Spain” version of reality, a Foreign Minister ought to avoid treating all foreigners as witless victims of indoctrination. They might find it an insult to their intelligence, just as the Catalans do. When Borrell rolls up in foreign parts, it is to address their ignorance about Spain and put them right. By his own admission, he is failing.
In the same discussion, he also took a swipe at Belgium, whose judiciary, like Germany’s, has been unwilling to cede to Spanish demands that they extradite exiled Catalan politicians straight into Spanish jails for offences that do not exist in their penal codes. The Belgians also ignored Borrell’s calls for Supreme Court judge, Pablo Llarena, to be protected from a lawsuit presented by exiled Catalan politicians. While the Spanish government claims separation of powers as the reason it cannot intervene on behalf of jailed Catalan leaders, Borrell saw no contradiction in his intervening on behalf of a Spanish judge. “We have to explain that Spain is one of the world’s twenty most advanced democracies, ahead of Belgium”, he complained. Although it should have been difficult for Borrell to put his foot in it at this event, organised as it was by the Spanish Chamber of Commerce and with Borrell in conversation with a sympathetic El País journalist, somehow he managed.
For the umpteenth time in the past four months, it fell to the Catalan-born socialist to trot out the Spanish government’s line that the success of the Catalan independentist narrative is down to the support of Catalan television, despite most of the media viewed in Catalonia coming from Spanish national broadcasters, despite TV3’s output being unavailable outside Catalonia and despite the Catalan public channel always scoring highly for balanced reporting in independent studies. One of the main problems with the Spanish government’s message to the world is the incongruity between its narrative and what is objectively demonstrable. Borrell often appears frustrated that the Spanish story is not swallowed as unquestioningly as it is Spain. Neither Borrell nor his predecessor, Alfonso Dastis, has been able to overcome the incoherence of its version of events in other countries.
Borrell’s speech at the 21st Century Club last Tuesday set out the same arguments: “Spain’s international image has been severely damaged, especially in Europe and the Anglo-Saxon world, by the propaganda of the Catalan independence movement with the active support of the institutions of the Generalitat, a fact that has forced this Ministry to dedicate part of its time and energy to correcting this message and fixing the image”. He appears to regard the shocking images of the Spanish police beating Catalan voters during the 1 October referendum as merely a public relations problem, albeit an impossible one for him to solve. And by the “Anglo-Saxon world”, I believe he meant the English-speaking world, or perhaps Britain and the United States. It is very often unclear what Mr Borrell is trying to say. Some say it is a strategy.
His assertion that Catalan government delegations abroad – Diplocat – had enjoyed greater resources than the mighty Spanish Foreign Office and diplomatic service rings particularly hollow, especially taking into consideration that all delegations were closed by the previous government. “I would like to have the means and resources that Diplocat has”, he grumbled. Although some delegations have reopened since the nominal lifting of direct rule, Borrell has vowed to close them again. He is currently searching for a technicality to justify his decision. “Such work requires resources, consistency and capacity”, he said, adding that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs “is not designed for that, but will try within its means”.
This attempt to portray the Spanish State as the victim of a well funded and effective Catalan independentist propaganda machine ignores the possibility that those in the international community with a negative view of the Spanish authorities’ actions in Catalonia during the past year are unlikely to have got their news from TV3. It is far more probable that their information has come from Spain’s powerful media organisations and the sanitised accounts provided by foreign correspondents working for news organisations fed by Madrid. They might also have noticed Spanish diplomacy’s penchant for coercion and bribery and Spain’s tendency to get nasty when it does not get its way. Just ask the Germans and the Belgians.
It is also difficult to understand precisely what Mr Borrell is moaning about; perhaps it is that so many people have felt the need to explain on social media what living in Catalonia has really been like over the past twelve months, regardless of the risks of speaking freely in a country with a draconian “Gag Law” to restrict basic freedoms. Borrell is well aware that most of these personal accounts have fallen on deaf ears. Internationally, there has been little interest in Catalan grievances. As unionists will say, unwittingly quoting former British Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, “the Catalans have never had it so good”. Or as Dastis said when interviewed by Tim Sebastian when still Foreign Minister, the 1 October referendum beatings were hardly “Sunday, bloody Sunday” [sic]. There will always be somewhere worse to be and always someone worse off. They are poor arguments with which to combat Catalan Republicanism.
At the club, Borrell’s description of the violent repression of the referendum on Catalan sovereignty and subsequent detention of civil and political leaders was artfully euphemistic: “I have to congratulate [the secessionists] on being more capable and effective than the government in transmitting a version of the events abroad that has epic overtones which have been reinforced by the existence of preventive detention for a series of leaders”. One should be grateful at least that Borrell has abandoned Dastis’ attempt to persuade the world that the more than 1,000 injured on 1 October were all making it up. However, the attempt to convince people that the non-violent nature of the pro-independence movement is a fiction continues. In Spain, the lie is generally accepted; abroad they ask for evidence.
That so many non-Spanish citizens of the world look in horror at the Spanish judiciary – at the nine imprisoned civil and political leaders accused of violent uprising when there is no evidence of violence; at the three young people from Altsasu, Navarre, given thirteen-year jail sentences for a bar fight; at the rappers imprisoned for glorifying terrorism in lyrics, when no terrorist organisation remains in Spain, and for calling the King of Europe’s most corrupt monarchy a thief; at an actor prosecuted for offending religious sensibilities by saying he “shits on the Virgin Mary”; at the lenient sentencing of gang rapists; at the abusive language of judges towards Catalan independentists in recently revealed emails; and at innumerable other examples of civil, political and human rights abuses – is, according to Borrell, all down to Catalan propaganda, and nothing whatever to do with an independent assessment the events themselves:
“Faced with a Catalonia that has managed to export the idea of a ‘repressive Spain’, with a judicial power that is not independent and that has not forgotten the Franco regime, previous governments have not done what they had to do to counteract this story”. While laying most of the blame for the conflict at the door of their predecessors in the Moncloa, the Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE) government’s policy on Catalonia has diverged little from that of the Partido Popular (PP). The main difference has been improved manners. Though Borrell denies that preventive detention is a “coercive element”, the Catalan political prisoners are currently bargaining chips, hostages, their futures dependent upon the actions of pro-independence politicians and citizens. Uncertainty over their fate has had the desired inhibiting effect on both.
Also key to the tale Borrell is spinning is making a link between Catalan secessionist feeling and the rise of far-right nationalisms. Though the pro-independence movement is transversal and Catalan society as a whole has shown itself to be much better disposed to migration than most European countries, especially Spain, the Foreign Minister claimed that the nationalist and populist discourse in Catalonia is the same as in the United Kingdom regarding Brexit. It is the argument that the desire for Catalan self-determination is inspired by a lack of solidarity, by a desire to be richer. In Borrell’s words, leaving the union would mean “we would have more money and we alone can administer it well”.
While it is true that the financial arrangement between Catalonia and Spain is unfavourable and the “Spain is robbing us” slogan was much used for a time, the reasons for supporting the creation of a Catalan Republic are diverse, run much deeper and go much further. At least half the population of Catalonia sees no future for the region under Spanish rule. The Catalan Statute passed in 2006 was diluted to such an extent that, by 2010, it delivered little more in the way of autonomy for Catalonia than the previous version had and its suppression is considered by some to be akin to a “coup d’état”. Under the last PP government (2011-2018) all requests for dialogue were rejected and all attempts to build a better country through progressive lawmaking were also blocked by the Constitutional Court. Then there are the newcomers to the Catalan cause, convinced not by old arguments, but by what they have witnessed and realised over the past year. For Catalan Republicans, Spain’s regime of 1978 is still in control and is incapable of reform.
Witness the difficulty Pedro Sánchez’s PSOE government is having introducing any of the measures it has proposed. They could also be accused of merely going through the motions, or even of having no idea what they are doing. PSOE Ministers have been repeatedly forced to eat their words by the leadership. The most recent example of this problem was the on-off arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Having announced that it would stop the sale of laser-guided bombs worth €9 million to the Gulf State due to their use in Yemen, the Spanish government was forced to backtrack when the €1.8-billion deal to supply five warships to the same customer was obviously put at risk. Mr Borrell’s explanation that, in fact, these missiles “do not create collateral effects” was met with consternation. “With this kind of weapon you don’t get the bombings that you get with less sophisticated weapons that are dropped rather randomly and cause the kind of tragedy we’ve all condemned”, he said.
Borrell has also struggled with the predictable question over Catalan nationhood. Even for Spain’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Catalonia is clearly a nation “from a socio-cultural and linguistic point of view”, but most on the Spanish right will not even admit that much and, to quell the storm, he was forced to add that “not all cultural nations necessarily make up a state”. One of the main reasons for his appointment as Foreign Secretary were his appearances at events organised by Spanish unionist platform, Societat Civil Catalana, and the vociferously epic language he employed to warn Catalan independentists of what to expect if they continued down the path to secession: “What are national borders?”, he asked. “Borders are the scars that history has left on the skin of the earth, carved in blood and fire” His use of inflammatory language during the Catalan Socialists’ campaign for the 21 December elections made him the right man for the job. He asserted that Catalonia was a “sick country” and that, for its wounds to heal, “they must be disinfected” otherwise they would “rot”. When Borrell says that the divisions within Catalan society will take a generation to heal, he conveniently ignores his own personal contribution by repeatedly offending half of its population.
On the diplomatic circuit, the José Borrell show has been generally well attended. It is just as well that he has significant international experience and a good reputation because the content of his talks is implausible at best. It is not that the Spanish government’s narrative requires a rewrite or any polish, it is that Spain’s position is untenable and Borrell’s task impossible. Spain’s damaged image is well deserved and probably irreparable.