Catalan independence supporters have been passionately campaigning for the European Union to get involved in their cause in recent weeks, but this wasn't what they had in mind.
On Monday the Spanish government warned EU ministers in Brussels that the co-ordinated spreading of misinformation by cyber-activists in Russia and Venezuela had sought to influence political developments in Spain, potentially helping the Catalan separatist cause.
“What we know in Spain is that a lot of these acts came from Russian territory,” Spanish defence minister María Dolores de Cospedal told reporters in Brussels, where EU foreign and defence ministers were meeting.
Cospedal said she did not know if the Russian government was involved but that other, similar, activity had been detected in Venezuela.
Since the Catalan crisis was sparked by a disputed independence referendum on October 1st, which national police tried to stop, the Spanish government and some media have been warning that fake news about the issue was being generated in Russia.
Although Madrid has been careful not to accuse the Kremlin of involvement in public, Mariano Rajoy's administration has complained to the Russian embassy about the alleged interference, according to newspaper El Español.
Monday’s meeting was the first time that Madrid has brought the issue to the attention of other EU nations on such a high-profile stage.
Spanish foreign minister Alfonso Dastis echoed Cospedal’s warning, saying that the concerns were based at least partly on analysis of social media traffic in the aftermath of the referendum.
Dastis addressed fellow ministers about the issue, as well as meeting in private with several of his counterparts, reportedly including Ireland’s Simon Coveney.
On Friday, ahead of the meeting, the Russian embassy in Madrid issued a statement accusing the Spanish media of “inflating the bubble of supposed Russian involvement in Catalonia”. It added that such claims “do not help the reader see the true origins and possible solutions to the problems in the region”.
The intrigue increased on Monday, when El País newspaper published a photograph of an influential Catalan pro-independence campaigner, Oriol Soler, visiting Wikileaks founder Julian Assange in the Ecuadorean embassy in London last week.
Assange has been one of the separatist cause’s best-known promoters in recent months, using social media to lambast the Spanish government and unionist media and even tweeting in Catalan. He has repeatedly been forced to play down his closeness to Russia since Wikileaks’ use of information linked to the 2016 US presidential election.
On Monday Dastis suggested that Soler’s visit to the Australian had focused on Catalan separatism. He said there was “plenty of evidence to suggest that this gentleman [Assange] and others try to intervene in, manipulate and affect what should be the natural democratic process in Catalonia”.
Assange hit back, posting a tweet that said: “Spain’s Rajoy government is making big propaganda push today … attempting to blame its beating of more than 1,000 Catalan voters & holding high-level political prisoners on alleged Russian twitter bots.”
Soler, meanwhile, acknowledged that the meeting with Assange took place but said it had had “nothing to do with” Catalan independence.
Madrid’s concerns about outside interference are amplified by an upcoming Catalan election on December 21st. In the last election, in 2015, pro-independence parties narrowly won a majority. However, last month the Spanish government dissolved the region’s parliament and sacked the Catalan cabinet after introducing direct rule.
The deposed Catalan president, Carles Puigdemont, who led the recent secessionist drive, has told Belgium's Le Soir newspaper that an alternative to independence for his region is "always possible". Puigdemont has been in Belgium for the past two weeks, claiming he would not be treated fairly by the Spanish justice system. Eight of his former cabinet members are in prison awaiting trial for sedition and rebellion.