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POLITICS

Why does Catalonia have its own ‘embassies’ abroad?

With news that Catalonia is set to open several new delegations abroad, The Local looks into the history and explores how, and why, they exist.

Why does Catalonia have its own ‘embassies’ abroad?
Protestors wave and wear Catalan pro-independence 'Estelada' flags as they demonstrate outside the Spanish Embassy in London in October 2017, following the detention of Spanish separatist leaders. Catalonia also has a delegation in the British capital, as well as in numerous other cities around the world. (Photo by CHRIS J RATCLIFFE / AFP)

New offices

Catalonia’s Generalitat is set to open four new ‘embassies’ in May 2022. Although technically not proper embassies, of course, new foreign offices representing Catalonia will open in Japan, South Korea, Andorra and South Africa, taking the Generalitat’s total number of delegations abroad to 18.

In addition, foreign delegations are to travel to Austria, Slovakia, Senegal, Morocco, Portugal and Canada to promote Catalan identity and interests abroad, and the Generalitat will also create three extra offices that will support and be connected to preexisting delegations in Quebec, Dublin, and Ljubljana, as well as employ two new special envoys in Poland and Scotland. 

But with this flurry of new diplomatic activity, it begs the question: why does Catalonia have foreign embassies and envoys? Do other regions? Why, and how, do they exist? 

Why does Catalonia have ’embassies’?

The Minister of Foreign Action and Open Government of the Generalitat, Victòria Alsina, explained the purpose of the foreign expansion at a recent event called “More Catalonia In The World.”

Catalonia’s foreign presence, she said, is intended to promote Catalan identity and “defending the general interests” of Catalonia and “contributing to the challenges of the global agenda.”

On the Generalitat’s official website, they explain how “Catalonia’s foreign action is articulated around four axes: presence, excellence, influence and commitment. The Government wants to place Catalonia and its future project in the context of the global agenda, strengthening its relations with the European Union, with the region Mediterranean and with the rest of the world, and also with international organisations.”

The omission of any reference to Catalonia as a region of Spain is hard to miss. 

History

The Generalitat opened its first ’embassy’ in Brussels in 2004 to better facilitate discussion of regional issues in the European Union. Since then, various different Catalan governments – led by the PSC, but also by CiU or ERC – have all sought to increase the number of foreign delegations and exert influence abroad, with the only hold up coming in 2017 when the Spanish government closed all of the so-called foreign embassies except the Brussels office based on technicalities of article 155 in the Spanish constitution.

The ‘Public Diplomacy Council of Catalonia’ (known as Diplocat) was also closed, but in 2018 a new Government led by Quim Torra began reopening the foreign offices. Currently, the Generalitat has operational delegations in the United Kingdom, Ireland, Germany, the United States, Switzerland, Italy, France, the Balkans, Central Europe, the Nordic and Baltic Countries, Portugal, Argentina, Mexico and Tunisia.

Other regions

Catalonia is not alone in having foreign delegations, however. The Basque Country also has six offices abroad, including in Brussels, New York, and Mexico City. Andalusia has a delegation in Brussels, but it must be said the neither the Basque Country nor Andalusia are actively trying to increase their number of delegations, expand influence abroad, nor have they made recent independence bids.

Viewed through the prism of politics, it is difficult not to see these Catalonian foreign embassies as soft-power ploys to potentially build foreign support for another independence push, whenever and in whatever form that may come. 

Money and politics

Indeed, the issue of self-styled Catalonian embassies abroad have also played a role in domestic politics. It was under the Rajoy government, the last PP administration in Spain, that Catalonia’s foreign delegations were closed, in part, as a way to quell the separatist impulse growing at the political level.

And judging by the autonomous region’s expenditure on its foreign offices, expanding Catalan identity and influence abroad is important, and expensive, to the Generalitat, and money is seemingly no object when it comes to projecting the image of Catalonia as an independent state abroad.

In fact, according to a freedom of information request to the Portal de Transparència del Govern, made by newspaper El Periódico, Catalonia’s various foreign embassies spent a combined 4.3 million in 2020 alone – a year at the height of the pandemic when the majority of the world was locked-down and workloads decreased.

Yet, even the global pandemic was seemingly politicised and given a distinctly Catalan spin: at the height of the lockdown an office in Central Europe reportedly spent almost €27,000 on a video production outlining the ‘reaction of Catalan society to COVID” to distinguish its health response from the rest of Spain’s.

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SPANISH POLITICS

What the PP’s landslide win in Andalusia means for Spain’s ruling Socialists

A resounding win by Spain's conservative Popular Party in a weekend regional election in Andalusia appears to have boosted its chances in national elections next year and weakened Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez.

What the PP's landslide win in Andalusia means for Spain's ruling Socialists

The Popular Party (PP) secured 58 seats in Sunday’s election in Spain’s most populous region — three more than the 55 needed for an absolute majority. That constitutes its best-ever result in the longstanding Socialist stronghold.

The Socialists won 30 seats, their worst-ever result in Andalusia. It governed there without interruption between 1982 and 2018, when it was ousted from power by a coalition between the PP and centre-right Ciudadanos.

This was the Socialists’ third consecutive regional election loss to the PP after votes in Madrid in May 2021 and Castilla y Leon in February.

Sanchez’s government has been struggling to deal with the economic fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has fuelled inflation worldwide, especially through increasing energy prices.

Socialist party officials argued the results of a regional election “can’t be extrapolated” nationally.

But in an editorial, centre-left daily El Pais said no one can deny the gulf in the election scores obtained between the two parties in two of Spain’s most populated regions — Andalusia and Madrid.

This was “more than just a stumble”, it argued.

“This may be a symptom of a change in the political cycle” at the national level, it added. The conservative daily ABC took a similar line.

‘Worn down’

Pablo Simon, political science professor at the Carlos III University, said this “new cycle” in which “the right is stronger” began when the PP won a landslide in a regional election in Madrid in May 2021.

It could culminate with the PP coming out on top in the next national election expected at the end of 2023, he added.

But Cristina Monge, a political scientist at the University of Zaragoza, took a more cautious line.

“The government is worn down after four difficult years due to the pandemic” and the war in Ukraine, which has fuelled inflation, she said.

She refused to “draw a parallel” between Andalusia and Spain, arguing “there is still a lot of time” before the next national election.

Sanchez come to power in June 2018 after former PP prime minister Mariano Rajoy was voted out of office in a no-confidence motion triggered by a long-running corruption scandal.

The PP then suffered its worst-ever results in the next general election in 2019, which the Socialists won.

Sunday’s election was the first since veteran politician Alberto Núñez Feijóo, a moderate, took over as leader of the PP from Pablo Casado following a period of internal party turbulence.

Partido Popular (PP) candidate for the Andalusian regional election Juanma Moreno greets supporters during a meeting following the Andalusian regional elections, in Seville on June 19, 2022. (Photo by CRISTINA QUICLER / AFP)

‘Packing his bags’

“People are fed up with Sanchez,” the PP’s popular regional leader of Madrid, Isabel Diaz Ayuso, said Monday.

“If national elections had been held yesterday, the result would have been the same and today he would be packing his bags,” she added.

Up until now, the far-right Vox party had supported the PP in Andalusia but from outside government.

This time around however, it had said its support would be conditional on getting a share of the government of the southern region.

But the PP’s commanding victory in Andalusia means that is now moot: it no longer has to rely on far-right party Vox to govern.

At the national level, it could be a different story however, said Pablo Simon.

A PP government nationally that did not rely on Vox would be “impossible” due to the fragmentation of parliament, which has several regional and separatist parties.

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