In the Spanish government’s new publicity drive, some of the country’s most powerful and best known people — from Banco Santander executive chairman Ana Botín to chef José Andrés — line up to praise Spain’s inclusiveness, diversity and democracy over a soundtrack of electronic music. “This is the real Spain,” is the campaign’s message.
Unspoken, but clearly implied, is what Madrid believes to be a false picture of Spain: that of a heavy-handed centralising power that arbitrarily and forcefully repressed a bid by Catalonia’s government to declare independence in 2017.
The Catalan attempt to secede was based on a referendum that was illegal under Spain’s constitution, and on Tuesday 12 separatist leaders of the independence bid will go on trial in Spain’s supreme court, accused of rebellion, sedition and other charges. Spain’s government led by Pedro Sánchez insists the country’s judicial system is independent and that justice must run its course. But at the same time Madrid is arming itself to fight in the court of international public opinion, combating what it frames as years of unchecked and hostile disinformation by a deft secessionist movement that has distorted views of Spain and the Spanish courts.
“Why are Spanish institutions, the Spanish judiciary, being questioned? Because there was a narrative from groups supporting independence, without a counter narrative,” said Dolores Delgado, Spain’s justice minister, in an interview with the Financial Times. “We cannot permit the spreading of a story that does not fit with reality.”
The government knows what it is up against. The “This is the real Spain” campaign — which also features personalities such as musician Daniel Barenboim and actor Richard Gere — has been subverted on social media with photos of truncheon-wielding riot police trying to stop the 2017 secession referendum. Many of those posting images displayed yellow ribbons, a symbol of support for the Catalan separatist cause.
With appearances by political heavyweights such as former premier Mariano Rajoy, as well as the testimony of the defendants, the trial of the Catalan separatists is likely to overshadow Spanish political debate for months. It presents a complex challenge to Mr Sánchez, who eight months ago enlisted the help of Catalan separatist parties to oust Mr Rajoy and his People’s party government in a confidence vote. His minority Socialist government is performing a political balancing act: trying to convince the separatist parties to continue to back him in parliament while it supports the justice system that is putting their leaders on trial and steps up Madrid’s public rejection of the Catalan separatist argument.
Mr Sánchez’s administration believes Mr Rajoy’s government failed to counter the separatist narrative on the world stage in the years before the illegal referendum, when Catalonia’s separatist-run government opened “embassies” and used social media and foreign press briefings to push its case abroad.
Spain’s reputation dropped in Germany, Italy and France over the period of the independence referendum, according to research from the Elcano Royal Institute, a Madrid think-tank.
As premier Mr Sánchez has tried to improve Madrid’s response. España Global, a public diplomacy agency, has been relaunched and produced the “real Spain” campaign. Irene Lozano, the head of España Global, told the FT in London during a tour of European capitals that the Catalan conflict “was built on disinformation and fake news . . . this is a real problem for democracy”.
Mr Sánchez’s government has tried to push back against the independence movement’s romanticism of the issue as well as its attacks on the judiciary’s independence. Jailed former Catalan parliament speaker, Carme Forcadell, recently told the FT that democracy and free speech were on trial, a common separatist refrain, and that she and her fellow defendants were political prisoners.
“In a country like Spain where we have had political prisoners — my grandfather was a political prisoner after the civil war — this is really offensive, not just fake news or propaganda,” Ms Lozano said.
In terms of judicial independence, Ms Delgado points to recent trials in which the king’s brother-in-law, Iñaki Urdangarin, and former vice-president Rodrigo Rato were sent to jail — as well as to the “Gürtel” corruption trial of PP leaders that led to Mr Rajoy’s ousting — as proof of judicial independence.
“That a member of the royal family was subject to a judicial process and is currently is prison demonstrates independence,” she said. “Gürtel was being done against the political party in power.”
One of the Sánchez government’s aims is to refocus the trial narrative away from the leaders and toward the alleged crimes — although it has also seemed uncomfortable with the charges of rebellion, which apply to those who “rise violently and publicly” and which is punishable by a 25 year sentence. The state legal service, which is part of the government, has pressed for lesser charges with shorter sentences than the independent prosecutor’s office.
Ms Lozano describes September 2017 Catalan parliamentary sessions, in which Ms Forcadell and separatist leaders used legally questionable measures to fast track referendum and “disconnection” laws, as an attack on the rights of the majority of Catalans who did not vote for separatist parties.
“[The separatists] speak and behave as if the other half of Catalan society that is happy to be in Spain did not exist,” she said. “If you have someone in a position of power like the president of the [Catalan government] or the Catalan parliament deprive half of the population of their rights, that should not go unpunished.”
The launch of España Global has sparked a response from the separatist community. This month in the Spanish senate, Josep Lluís Cleries, the spokesman for one of the Catalan separatist parties, accused foreign minister Josep Borrell of using the “propaganda” to “cover up the grave weaknesses of Spanish democracy”.
Mr Borrell responded that he found it “very funny” to be lectured about propaganda “when with the money of all Catalans you have flooded the web with videos filled with blatant lies about the reality of Spain”.