Sunday, January 17, 2016

In Far-Flung Corners of the World, Catalan Secessionists Push for Support for Independence From Spain

Madrid tries to counter message, lobbying governments and dogging separatist events

Albert Royo, head of the Public Diplomacy Council of Catalonia, in front of his offices in a modernist Barcelona building known as the House of Spikes.ENLARGE
Albert Royo, head of the Public Diplomacy Council of Catalonia, in front of his offices in a modernist Barcelona building known as the House of Spikes. PHOTO: CRISTOBAL CASTRO FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
VILNIUS, Lithuania—The struggle between the Spanish government and secessionists from the wealthy Catalonia region is playing out not just at home, but in universities, parliaments and newsrooms around the world. Recently the conflict zone was Vilnius University.
A Catalan government official, Albert Royo, told a panel of academics that Catalans were casting ballots and holding mass demonstrations in their quest to form an independent republic. But Madrid was pushing back, he said.
That soon became clear. When the floor was open to questions, a Spanish embassy representative sought the mic, and the sleepy university lecture room jolted to life. Spain’s 1978 constitution prohibits secession, he said, and two of its seven authors are Catalan. Doesn’t that mean that Catalans are “trying to break the same system they created?” he asked. 
The forum, organized late last year by Mr. Royo’s Public Diplomacy Council of Catalonia, or Diplocat, was part of the region’s shoestring campaign to win international backing for Catalan independence.
The secessionists, who argue that Spain drains the industrial region of taxes and doesn’t respect its distinctive culture, have made some progress in raising awareness, but the Spanish government has worked to counter them nearly every step of the way.
Diplocat has placed op-ed articles in about 60 newspapers, ranging from the U.K.’s Guardian to Correio Braziliense of Brasília. Legislative committees in Belgium, Uruguay and Paraguay have met with Catalan emissaries. Denmark’s parliament passed a motion calling for dialogue between Madrid and Barcelona.
But the Spanish government has all the advantages in the battle of international public opinion, and has largely blunted Catalonia’s diplomatic efforts.
As in Vilnius, officials from Spain’s embassies have taken the floor at Diplocat events to argue that secession is illegal and Catalonia’s economic problems are of its own making. Spain’s status as the eurozone’s fourth-largest economy and a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has helped garner expressions of support for Spanish unity from President Barack Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
“The international community believes it’s too dangerous to allow certain areas to secede because it opens up a whole Pandora’s box”—encouraging separatist ambitions of other restive regions, said Kathryn Crameri, chair of Hispanic Studies at the University of Glasgow.
That is especially so at a time when Europe is struggling to rebound from a grinding economic crisis and facing an influx of refugees from the Middle East and Afghanistan. “The Catalans have suffered from bad timing,” said Raanan Rein, a specialist on Spanish history at Tel Aviv University.
But the diplomatic skirmishing is expected to heat up. Secessionist parties in Catalonia ended months of squabbling last week and elected a new regional president, Carles Puigdemont, who has pledged to make independence a reality within 18 months. His government has upgraded its secretariat of foreign affairs to ministry status, and officials say they will build on Diplocat’s work.
Mr. Royo, a former press officer at the European Commission, manages part of the €17 million ($18.5 million) Catalonia spends on diplomacy and international aid. Catalan unionists often attack Diplocat, saying taxpayer money shouldn’t be going to pro-independence diplomacy, especially during an economic crisis. But Catalonia’s budget is a pittance compared with the €1.5 billion Spain spends on foreign affairs.
To maximize the return on Catalonia’s investment, Diplocat has organized about 40 academic seminars from Buenos Aires to Brussels.
“Academics are multipliers,” helping shape public opinion, said Mr. Royo, who collects binders full of press clippings from events. Diplocat hosts foreign journalists and politicians on fact-finding missions. It sent election observers to Costa Rica to show Catalonia’s willingness to be a good global citizen.
Spanish diplomats have worked to undermine Catalonia’s courtship of the international community. In Norway, Spain’s ambassador wrote to the University of Oslo complaining that it had abetted Catalan propaganda by hosting a Diplocat event. When Diplocat came to the University of Vienna, Spanish embassy officials handed out leaflets setting out the legal case for “the indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation.”
Says Catalan author Albert Sanchez Piñol: “Diplocat and the Spanish diplomatic corps are like the dog and the cat.”
He would know. In 2014, Diplocat organized a round table at the University of Amsterdam marking the publication of the Dutch translation of his best-selling historical novel, “Victus,” which chronicles the fall of Barcelona to Spanish and French armies in the 18th century. According to the author and others present, a Spanish diplomat got up and made a speech complaining that the book perpetuated falsehoods about Spain and its then ruler, King Felipe V.
A Spanish government cultural center in Utrecht then canceled a presentation of Mr. Sanchez Piñol’s book that had been scheduled the next day.
Neither Spain’s foreign ministry nor the prime minister’s office responded to written questions about Catalonia-related diplomacy. But Foreign Minister José García-Margallo said in a recent interview with the Madrid newspaper El País that Catalan secessionists were attempting “an institutional coup d’état.” He added: “We are facing a revolt that has to be put down.”
Mr. Royo relishes victories when he can, such as the empathetic tone of speakers at the Vilnius University forum.
“Quite a lot of [Lithuanians] have instinctive sympathy to…regions that aspire to either more autonomy or statehood,” said Ramunas Vilpisauskas, director of the university’s institute of international relations. That sense of kinship, he said, was a consequence of Lithuania’s long history of struggle to escape dominion by the Soviet Union.
Gediminas Vitkus, a European Studies scholar, said he added a question on Catalonia on a regular opinion poll conducted in Lithuania in May.
Some 30% of about 1,000 respondents supported recognizing Catalonia if it declared independence, 15% opposed and the rest didn’t have an opinion. Mr. Royo tweeted the result immediately.

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