Catalonia: a dilemma for Germany

Carles Puigdemont’s arrest has galvanised a movement that had lost momentum

The arrest of the former Catalan first minister, Carles Puigdemont, in Germany is yet another twist in the protracted and toxic stalemate between the Spanish authorities and the Catalan independence movement.

The German courts must now decide whether to extradite Puigdemont, on a European arrest warrant from the Spanish courts accusing him of rebellion and sedition. They face a tough dilemma: failure to extradite will be read in Madrid as a betrayal of first principles by a key EU partner; extradition offers Puigdemont the martyrdom that Catalan nationalism appears to crave.

In an apparent paradox, which reflects the destructive dynamic of the struggle between resurgent Catalan and Spanish nationalisms, his arrest probably suits the basest interests of both sides. It is unlikely, however, to assist in resolving this conflict, and restore a functioning government and democratic normality to Catalonia.

The detention has been welcomed by supporters of the Spanish conservative prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, as a European endorsement of his hard line against "separatism". This comes after a period when Rajoy's Partido Popular (PP) has been trailing the upstart conservative party, Ciudadanos, in opinion polls.


This new mobilisation, with clashes at demonstrations in Barcelona on Sunday, resurrects the spectre that this conflict may not be resolved at the ballot box

Meanwhile, though the arrest has naturally been unanimously condemned by the otherwise fractious Catalan independence camp, it has nevertheless galvanised a movement that had lost momentum since its narrow victory in the December elections to the Catalan parliament.

Unfortunately this new mobilisation, with some violent clashes during large demonstrations in Barcelona on Sunday night, resurrects the spectre that this conflict may not be resolved at the ballot box.

The charges against Puigdemont relate to his organisation of an independence referendum, declared illegal by the Spanish courts, last October. There is little doubt that he abused his slim parliamentary majority to push through a referendum without any binding democratic validity. But this defiance was a response to the Spanish establishment’s long-repeated refusal to accommodate ever-growing demands for greater Catalan autonomy and national identity.

And the PP, in sending Spanish police into Catalonia to stop people voting, in leaning on a malleable judiciary to severely prosecute the organisers, and in imposing direct rule on Catalonia for the first time in 40 years, has ensured continuing polarisation of a deeply divided region. Some 25 Catalan nationalist politicians now face charges, with at least one other EU extradition case pending (in Scotland).

EU courts must apply the law, but in reaching their decisions they should consider the fact that many observers say the Spanish courts are themselves unacceptably subject to political pressure.