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  • Andrej Hunko talks in PACE current affairs debate on the need for a political solution to the crisis in Catalonia

Andrej Hunko talks in PACE current affairs debate on the need for a political solution to the crisis in Catalonia

Opening speech of Andrej Hunko in the current affairs debate of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) on "The need for a political solution to the crisis in Catalonia" on 12th October 2017. The debate was proposed by the Unified European Left (UEL) group. A video of the whole debate in English is available here. The verbatim records can be found here.

Mr HUNKO (Germany)* – Today we are discussing the need for a political solution to the crisis in Catalonia. The title of the debate reflects the fact that we must use political means – that is, talking – to find a solution, and it is good that we are making a start in that direction by discussing the situation.

This year, Spain celebrates its 40th anniversary of membership of Council of Europe, which it joined in 1977. It acceded to the European Convention on Human Rights in 1978. The Spanish constitution was adopted in 1979 and accession negotiations started with the EU. Despite all the problems, given the repercussions of the economic and financial crisis, those 40 years are considered successful, with development that only a few optimists could have imagined in 1977. People in Catalonia have had a share in that political and economic progress, so my hearty congratulations to all Spaniards.

On 1 October, I observed the controversial vote as part of an international observation mission. It was not an official election observation mission, such as those that the Council of Europe and the OSCE engage in, and neither did the Catalan authorities declare it as such. I can therefore say nothing about the referendum’s legitimacy, legality or significance, but I can give a first-hand account.

Some 500 polling stations were stormed by the Guardia Civil to confiscate the ballot boxes. I witnessed such a storming in a school in the immediate vicinity of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. I saw rubber bullets used against peaceful demonstrators and I was there when the wounded were taken away in ambulances. The use of rubber bullets against peaceful demonstrators is totally unacceptable. In several European countries, the weapons are rightly banned or not used on demonstrators because they can lead to serious injury. Indeed, Catalonia has banned rubber bullets.

I also believe that police forces should not charge demonstrators. According to the authorities, some 800 were wounded on the day. I thank Sir Roger, who will speak later: as the oldest Vice-President of the Assembly, he condemned excessive violence. I also thank Nils Muižnieks, our Human Rights Commissioner, who called for an independent investigation into the events. I certainly support that request.

I do not want to talk about just the violence on 1 October. Over the years, I have observed some 20 elections for the Parliamentary Assembly in different countries, but I have never seen such passion in carrying out a basic democratic process. The people of Catalonia are divided on independence and the result of 90% cannot be considered representative, but I think that the overwhelming majority in Catalonia want a referendum, just as the people of Scotland or Quebec had referendums.

Some people carried Spanish flags into polling stations in order to show that they were against independence. They were clapped by those present, because they were availing themselves of the opportunity to cast their vote. I saw the spirit of Voltaire: “I don’t agree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

The strong, profoundly democratic energy that came to the fore is a political reality that we cannot ignore. That is not the problem, but it could be part of the solution, irrespective of what that solution might be. It is not for the Council of Europe or any other international institution to decide what form that solution should take, but it is clear that the current situation is the consequence of the failed 2004 statute of autonomy adopted by the Catalan and Madrid Parliaments. That led to an official, binding referendum in 2006, in which 80% of Catalans who voted supported of the statute, but it was then overturned by the Spanish constitutional court, which resulted in moves towards independence becoming a socially relevant force in Catalonia. Constitutions are drawn up by human beings and they can be changed if they no longer correspond to social circumstances or social reality. I welcome the fact that Prime Minister Rajoy and the Secretary General of the Council of Europe, Thorbjørn Jagland, have alluded to the possibility of changing the constitution.

It is also clear that violence is no solution. It was totally irresponsible for the Spanish government’s spokesperson to discuss, at an official press conference, the fate of Lluís Companys in 1934. He called for a federal republic of Spain, but following Franco’s victory he had to flee to France, where he was captured by the Nazi Gestapo and extradited to Spain. He was tortured and, following a quick trial that lasted only a day, he was placed before a firing squad.

The solution to the current crisis lies in dialogue. The international community and in particular the Council of Europe have to shoulder their responsibilities. The European Convention on Human Rights obliges us to look at the current crisis as a common problem. There is room for discussion and debate. The Council of Europe has a panoply of tools to offer assistance, including the Venice Commission, which has expertise in constitutional matters, the Commissioner for Human Rights and the Secretary General. I appeal to them all to continue to follow the situation closely and to offer assistance. The Committee of Ministers should also take up the issue.

It is not just among politicians and institutions that dialogue should take place; civil society also needs to be involved. I was encouraging to see 10 000 people – young people in particular – take to the streets a few days ago as part of the Hablamos Parlem initiative. They wore white and called for people to come together and talk to one another. They were not demonstrating for or against Catalonian independence, but rather for discussion and a peaceful solution.

In conclusion, I hope that in the 40 years to come, Spain and Catalonia will develop in such a way that only few optimists can imagine today.