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A big mistake

Banning supporters of Catalan independence from waving a flag is unwise

Barcelona FC fans wave their pro-independence flags at a recent game.
Barcelona FC fans wave their pro-independence flags at a recent game.VICENS GIMENEZ

However offensive many Spaniards may find the demands by some in Catalonia for sovereignty, the decision by the government delegate in Madrid to ban Barcelona FC fans from waving the estelada – the unofficial flag that many pro-independence supporters have adopted – at the final of the King’s Cup against Sevilla in the capital on Sunday is a big mistake.

Politics in Spain seem to be increasingly treated like a soccer match, notably in Catalonia, where the stands at Barcelona’s Camp Nou are carpeted with esteladas of all sizes. Not to be outdone, the Popular Party government representative in Madrid, Concepción Dancausa, has joined the fray by banning the estelada, a decision that perhaps needs to be seen in light of the June 26 elections.

It is unwise to confront Catalan independence with the pro-Spanish sentiments that everybody else at the match, along with most people watching at home, presumably share. But it is laughable to think that  banning the estelada from the Vicente Calderón stadium will prevent other provocative and tasteless acts by pro-independence soccer fans, such as the catcalls and booing that have become traditional during the Spanish national anthem or the insults hurled at the king, who will be in attendance.

It is laughable to think that banning the estelada from the Vicente Calderón stadium will prevent other provocative and tasteless acts by pro-independence soccer fans

No less inexplicable is the attempt to justify the ban on the basis of legislation that forbids symbols that encourage “violent or terrorist behavior,” as though there were some connection between violence and the campaign for Catalan independence. Neither is there any link between waving flags in a sports stadium and flying the estelada in public buildings in Catalonia, which is an unacceptable and partisan appropriation of institutions that supposedly represent all Spaniards.

Within a democracy, any restriction on freedom of expression needs to be carefully considered and justified. The acting prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, backs the ban, but does so not by referring to the Spanish Constitution, which guarantees freedoms, but the rules of the Spanish soccer federation and the sport’s governing body in Europe, UEFA. More usefully, he might have learned something from the US Supreme Court’s 1989 and 1990 decisions to lift a ban on burning or defacing the stars and stripes because it restricted freedom of expression.

That said, instead of boycotting the event in protest, the head of the Catalan regional government and the mayor of Barcelona could have chosen to attend out of respect for the many people who do not agree with the ban, instead of adding fuel to the flames.

By the same token, the government should reconsider its prohibitionist stance, which seems only to apply to the flag chosen by supporters of Catalan independence, which in turn prompts the question of whether all unofficial flags are to be banned from sports stadiums. In short, the job of government and the authorities is to uphold the right of everybody to peacefully express their point of view.

English version by Nick Lyne.

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