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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

Far-right Vox leads mass protests against Spain’s government

Tens of thousands of supporters from Spain's far-right Vox party demonstrated nationwide on Sunday to protest Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez's leftist government.

Far-right Vox leads mass protests against Spain's government

Police said 25,000 people gathered in central Madrid’s Colon Square, where protesters unfurled flags and called on Sánchez to go, while demonstrations also took place in cities across Spain.

Vox leader Santiago Abascal denounced a “government of treason, insecurity and ruin” after recent changes to the criminal code and the approval of a new law against sexual violence.

READ MORE: Why Spain’s right is vehemently opposed to changes to sedition law

He lambasted the planned abolition of the crime of sedition, of which nine separatist leaders were convicted over their role in the Catalonia region’s abortive secession bid in 2017. An offence carrying a lower prison sentence will replace it.

“We have a government that governs against the people, lowers prison sentences for crimes, disarms the police,” Abascal told his followers in the Spanish capital.

The right believes the modified criminal code, which should be in place by the end of the year, will encourage further attempts to separate the northeastern Catalonia region from Spain.

“We are being governed by separatists, people who don’t want to be Spanish, that’s why I’m here,” said protester Cesar Peinado, a 65-year-old retired truck driver, accusing the government of “buying votes”.

Abascal said sexual assaults had doubled since Socialist premier Sánchez took power in 2018 and denounced a law he claimed allowed rapists and paedophiles to leave prison earlier.

READ MORE: Why is Spain reducing prison sentences for rapists?

He was referring to a flagship government law against sexual violence that toughened penalties for rape but eased sentences for other sexual crimes, setting some convicts free after their jail terms were reduced.

Supporters of far-right party Vox Santiago Abascal (unseen) hold a placard reading “liar, elections now” as they gather during an anti-government protest in Madrid, on November 27th 2022. (Photo by PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU / AFP)

María Dolores López, 58, told AFP she could “no longer put up with what this government is doing”, citing its policy towards the Catalan separatists and its law against sexual violence.

“It isn’t a coincidence that there’s no security either,” Abascal added, denouncing “a crazy minister who makes a law with the approval of the entire government, the political and media left so that rapists and paedophiles end up on the streets”.

The ruling left-wing coalition has long drawn the ire of the right and far right for initiating a dialogue with Catalonia’s pro-independence leaders, with large protests taking place in 2019 and 2021 over the talks.

Lacking a parliamentary majority, Sánchez’s government has been forced since its formation to negotiate with Basque and Catalan separatists to pass bills.

The coalition says sedition is an antiquated offence that should be replaced with one better aligned to European norms.

The nine Catalan separatists initially sentenced to between nine and 13 years in prison under the sedition law were pardoned last year, also infuriating the right.

The failed independence bid sparked Spain’s worst political crisis in decades, with then-Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont and several others fleeing abroad to escape prosecution.

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