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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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POLITICS

Qatar emir visits Spain as EU eyes gas alternatives

Qatar's emir began a state visit to Spain on Tuesday as Europe seeks to diversify its natural gas supply sources to reduce its energy dependence on Russia.

Qatar emir visits Spain as EU eyes gas alternatives

Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani was welcomed by King Felipe VI at Madrid’s royal palace at the start of his two-day visit, his first to Spain since he ascended the throne in 2013.

The emir, who is accompanied by Qatar’s foreign and energy ministers, is scheduled to hold talks with Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez on Wednesday.

Spain and Qatar are expected to sign a dozen economic and commercial contracts during his visit, mainly regarding energy, according to a Spanish government source.

The visit comes as the European Union is aiming to cut its reliance on Russian gas by two-thirds this year due to Russia’s invasion of  Ukraine.

Russia currently supplies around 40 percent of Europe’s gas needs.

Qatar, which has the third-largest natural gas reserves in the world, is currently Spain’s fifth-biggest supplier of natural gas after the United States, Algeria, Nigeria and Egypt.

The country accounted for 4.4 percent of Spain’s total gas imports in April and the Spanish government hopes this share could increase.

“We are working closely with out European counterparts” on the long-term supply of liquefied natural gas (LNG), Qatar’s ambassador to Spain, Abdullah Al-Hamar, told Spanish daily 20 Minutos.

The emir of Qatar’s trip to Europe will also include visits to Germany, Britain, Slovenia and Switzerland, where he will attend the World Economic Forum which will run in the mountain resort of Davos from May 22nd-26th.

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