Dear German friends,
As you debate Carles Puigdemont’s extradition to Spain, I wanted to share some thoughts with you.
Spanish democracy is far from perfect. But it is the best we’ve had for 40 years. After the Spanish Civil War and Franco dictatorship, the 1978 Constitution has provided Spaniards with political and social rights. It has allowed us to live in peace, prosperity and mutual recognition. Thanks to the vision and wisdom of the men and women who negotiated it, we’ve been able to build a modern, open, and European society. And thanks to the generosity of our fellow Europeans we’ve been able to join the organization with the highest regard for human rights in the world: the European Union.
I myself am proof of how contemporary Spain has evolved. My grandparents were on different sides of the Civil War (1936-1939): one fought for the Republic, the other was imprisoned by it. But they never instilled hatred in their children so, despite their different family backgrounds, my father and mother were allowed to marry and start a family. My father was active in the fight against Franco as a member of a radical left-wing organization and my mother was a member of the teacher’s union. They both worked hard to educate themselves, bring democracy to Spain and give their children an education.
As for me, I was almost seven when Franco died. It was a happy day: we were given three days off from school and saw our parents and friends toasting to a better future. There was hope but also fear the army would snatch back power. Those fears materialized in 1981 when I was 12, when rebel officers from the Civil Guard and the army occupied the Spanish parliament building. I remember my parents discussing whether they should pack up and leave for France. They worried that if the coup succeeded there would be greater repression and political detainees would be sent to soccer stadiums – as happened in Argentina. Fortunately, democracy prevailed: the king ordered the generals to remain loyal to the Constitution, EL PAÍS risked closure by running a special edition on the coup, and the people took to the streets to celebrate democracy.
My life continued to follow Spain’s evolution. I turned 18 just as the country entered the European Union in 1986 and attended a Danish High School – a timely metaphor of how much Spain had changed. And my first son was born on February 22, 2000, as firemen extinguished the flames from the car bomb ETA terrorists used to kill Fernando Buesa, a good Socialist politician and former vice premier of the Basque regional government. It was a bittersweet moment: I had wanted my son to be born in a country where people didn’t kill one another but I still had to wait a few years until ETA declared a permanent and irreversible truce.
As you see, Spanish democracy has not had an easy life. More recently, we’ve had to address the secessionist challenge in Catalonia. Riding on the devastation following the 2008 financial crisis, the ensuing austerity measures, massive unemployment and the anger over corruption in politics and democratic institutions, radicals secessionists – who have always been a minority in Catalonia (hardly reaching 9% of the vote in regional elections since the restoration of democracy) – excited national sentiments in Catalonia and, much like in Britain with Brexit, arrived at a magical solution for the region’s problems: independence from Spain, which they (falsely) claimed was robbing Catalans and suppressing their culture and liberties.
The fact is that it is within democratic, contemporary Spain, that Catalonia and Catalans, like the rest of Spaniards, have thrived. The Catalan language is now spoken by 90% of the people in Catalonia. Meanwhile, their culture, institutions and cities have earned international admiration. But their success is our collective success, which we are all proud of, and the best proof of the fact that we’re better together.
Catalan secessionists are no different from Nigel Farage’s Brexiters, Marine Le Pen’s National Front supporters, Italy’s Lega Nord or Germany’s AFD. They want to exclude those whom they see as different, poorer and inferior to them and not pay taxes to the common treasury. Yes, they do it in the name of democracy and take pride in the peaceful character of their demands. But we know their democracy is not for those who are different, and that the absence of violence doesn’t mean that they are not willing to coerce those who disagree with them. Just look at their social networks and see how hateful their messages are to those who think differently.
Luckily, the secessionists have lost. Despite their constant attempts to use the institutions of self-government, including regional TV and police forces, to illegally declare independence, they have come undone. They’ve not only failed to defeat Spanish democracy and win the support of our fellow Europeans and their institutions but, most importantly, they haven’t managed to persuade the Catalans: still today, a majority of Catalans feel both Catalan, Spanish and European, and see no problem with having multiple and compatible identities.
You know, we know, that democracy is not a gift but rather a hard-fought battle against intolerance, which has left a lot of suffering in its wake. It cannot be taken for granted and must be defended and preserved. In democracy, there is no difference between legality and legitimacy, as secessionists like to claim. Only in dictatorships does the law fail to reflect the free will of the people. Our regional courts, as imperfect as they may be, are subject not only to the Supreme and the Constitutional Courts but also to the European Court of Human Rights. And our political institutions are overseen by the European Union, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe and the Venice Commission. So far, none of them has identified any breach in the rule of law, democracy or minority rights in Spain. But should they, Spain would abide by their decision and act to fix their instructions. Which is why it makes sense for German courts to extradite Puigdemont and for the German public to support the move.
According to our prosecutors, Carles Puigdemont has committed serious crimes, violated our Constitution, threatened our democracy and put social peace in jeopardy. Judges will have to decide whether the evidence is sound. And they will do so in full respect of Spanish and European laws. Let our judges and democratic institutions do their job. Europe is ultimately about the rule of law: and both Spanish democracy and Puigdemont are equal before it.
José I. Torreblanca is the editor of the opinion section of EL PAÍS.