It took a lot of fixing from my colleagues on the foreign desk, but eventually we managed to get a sit-down interview with the Spanish foreign minister Alfonso Dastis at his offices in Madrid — the day before the 1st October 2017 Catalan referendum on independence.
Here’s my interview with Mr Dastis in full, where I ask if there will be a referendum, whether Spanish PM Mariano Rajoy misjudged the situation, and if the Catalan question represents the most serious threat to Spanish democracy in 40 years.
The political scene across Europe will be a series of contradictions in 2018. At the same time the continent leaves behind 2017 more confident and stable, from the united front on Brexit talks to the new Merkel-Macron engine starting to fire on all cylinders, the voices of dissent are still echoing around – and it’s not just the sound of ardent Brexiteers.
Euroscepticism may not have grabbed the top seats of leadership, but 2017 has once more been testament to the fact that any power is enough for populism to re-shape the narrative of mainstream political parties. A tough policy on refugees here, a bit of anti-establishment knife-twisting there. Despite growing prosperity across Europe, there’s still enough discontent and mistrust of the political classes to swing the continent to the right.
In Germany, the AfD, founded just four years ago when it failed to win a single seat in the German national elections, this time round won 94 seats, and is the country’s third largest party.
A far-right party, the FPO, is in coalition again in Austria after a decade away from power. Then, it caused Austria to be frozen out of close European circles. These days, a party in power in the heart of Europe that’s anti-migration and anti-Islam is slowly becoming the new normal.
And in France, staunchly pro-Europe, centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron saw off the far-right Front National leader Marine Le Pen, but she still managed to get nearly 11 million people to vote for her – many weary of a sluggish economy and concerned about French identity.
2017 was also a year that saw terror grip major European cities again – in London, Manchester and Barcelona, claiming dozens of lives.
2018 will start with pressure on Angela Merkel to form a new government, more than 3 months after the September elections. Mrs Merkel knows time is of the essence. As she said in her New Year address, “the world is not waiting for us”. She is due to meet SPD leader Martin Schulz at the end of this week to begin open-ended discussions on what next, ranging from a new coalition, propping up a minority Merkel government, or the prospect of new elections, which would deliver more or less exactly the same result.
Schulz may well have to swallow his pride and grudgingly accept to a new Grand Coalition with the CDU, fully aware that it will mean political suicide for his personal leadership and his party. But in doing so, he would be saving the unity of Europe’s largest and most powerful nation — and prop up Angela Merkel’s slipping crown, in the absence of no obvious successor to her yet.
Merkel has the challenge of winning over a growing number of voters who no longer think she’s up to the job. One poll published by WELT newspaper astonishingly showed that nearly 50 per cent of Germans want her to resign immediately. Just 10 per cent think she should remain.
Imagine for a moment the irony that, after the existential crisis of the Eurozone and the enormity of the (ongoing) migrant crisis that saw the door open to more than a million refugees into Germany in 2015, the relatively small matter of national elections would see her off.
However, Merkel can seek relief in the renewed sense of purpose for Europe through her close alliance with French president Emmanuel Macron. Both share a view for ambitious eurozone reforms. Yes, they are strong on style, but little on substance for now.
Grandstanding on the future of Europe has been Macron’s best trump card since being elected last May. His uncontrollably lengthy speeches and grandiose ideas are all well and good, but 2018 will be the year his promise is put to the test – with proof of results.
In his New Year’s speech, Macron said: “Europe is good for France – France can’t succeed without a strong Europe”.
After storming to victory, Macron administered the bitter medicine of reforms to France’s mammoth-sized state, saying he would do the job of turning the country’s labour market, regulations and economic model on their head, where his many predecessors had failed – or had simply been too frightened.
He said it would take “two years” to see the fruits of his labour reforms, pushed through in spite of determined, albeit dwindling, union anger.
France under its youngest leader since Napoleon has unmistakably undergone a growth spurt on the international stage. Macron has been flexing diplomatic muscle in Africa and in the Middle East, talking of French becoming the world’s first language, as well as boosting business confidence abroad. The 40-year-old president fixed meetings with both US President Donald Trump and the Russian leader Vladimir Putin soon after entering the Elysée, as France begins to rival Germany as the heavyweight in Europe and on the global diplomacy front.
Mr Macron still has to pass the test of speaking for all French people – addressing the millions who had felt left behind by globalisation and voted for Le Pen in May last year, and who regard him as an out-of-touch leader.
2018, so Macron says, will be the year of the “French renaissance”. In his TV address, he told the nation that they are “capable of the exceptional”. It’s the language of aspiration that a more optimistic France wants to listen to.
With a monopoly on power in the National Assembly and the first modern French president to reverse a continually downward popularity trend after a few months in office, this year looks bright for the so-called ‘Jupiter’ president.
Europe has never been a stranger to throwing up a few surprises, and in Italy, with populist parties nearer to power than ever before, March’s election could provide the EU with a moment for more nail-biting.
Opinion polls predict the eurosceptic, anti-establishment Five Star Movement emerging as the largest party, ahead of the ruling centre-left Democratic Party led by former Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi, and a resurgent Forza Italia in third place with the former ‘bunga-bunga’ leader Silvio Berlusconi at the helm.
But remember, this is Italy, a country much better known for coalition deals than strong and stable government. Italy has had 64 governments since World War Two.
The most likely result seems to be a hung parliament, which leaves potentially months of protracted talks and uncertainty ahead for financial markets and the entire eurozone.
Italy has emerged from the worst of the financial crisis, returning to growth, but it remains sluggish. The influx of migrants is still a big issue which will dominate the election agenda, despite a fall of a third in sea arrivals in 2017, according to Italy’s interior minister.
Berlusconi will be a figure to watch in bringing the sides together to thrash out a coalition deal. But the former prime minister, who has a tax fraud conviction that includes a ban on serving public office, can’t run for the top job, or even stand for parliament.
Let the games begin.
When Mariano Rajoy used an end-of-year press conference to say 2017 “hasn’t been an easy year at all” for Spain, he wasn’t joking.
The twists and turns in the battle between Barcelona and Madrid show no signs of ending. The intensely dramatic and bitterly divisive fallout from October’s illegal independence referendum has created Spain’s worst political crisis for nearly 40 years, with neither side looking likely to gather around the table for much-needed dialogue any time soon.
The incredible scenes of police violence on 1st October referendum day should have been enough of a wake-up call that Spain’s democracy has gone awry.
When Rajoy suspended Catalan autonomy and called snap elections after the regional parliament voted to unilaterally declare independence at the end of October, he took a gamble. He believed he could catch pro-independence parties on the back foot and deprive them of a parliamentary majority that they saw as a mandate for their break from the rest of Spain, and against Madrid’s “repression”.
After 21st December’s vote, however, we’re back at square one. The balance of pro-and anti-independence forces hasn’t changed – and splits more or less down the middle, leaving families, friends and colleagues incredibly divided.
Pro-independence parties are now in open disagreement about forming a government and who should be its president. Deposed Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont remains in self-imposed exile in Brussels, as his party discusses the possibility of investing him as president via video link, such is the risk of him being arrested as soon as he touches down in Spain.
The question of what Mr Puigdemont does next will not be easy to answer. The second option, former vice-president Oriol Junqueras, is one of eight Catalan leaders in custody or in exile awaiting trial on charges of sedition. As the legal process kicks off, there’ll be speculation once more of just how politically-motivated Spain’s justice system has become.
2017 exposed the silent majority of Catalans who are against independence, proud of both their Catalan and Spanish identities. The anti-independence party Ciutadans has ascended with each election – winning December’s vote with 11 more seats and a 25% vote share – but has no chance arithmetically of forming a government.
In opposition though, Ciutadans has the chance to moderate the ambitions of the region’s next secessionist government, by telling them they don’t speak for all Catalans, and pointing out that independence looks increasingly long-term in ambition, and fraught with risk, least of all for business.
Indeed, the separatist camp is divided about the next steps on independence, with one side pushing for the republic to be declared immediately, the other stepping back adopting a more moderate tone.
The conflict has in some part been of Rajoy’s own making. His long-term intransigence – hoping any crisis simply disappears if you don’t touch it – has done nothing to bring about a solution. What’s more, his PP party faired the worst ever in the region’s elections, coming last with just 4% of the vote.
More than 80% of Catalans want an agreed referendum – and while the elections showed that nothing has changed, it wasn’t a vote for the status quo either. Both sides need to talk desperately to turn down the political temperature, but giving in to the secessionists for Rajoy would be anathema. With growing speculation about a snap general election, Spain’s constitutional crisis over Catalonia looks set to bring even more surprises throughout 2018.
In March, Russian votes for its next president. But the token speculation ends there. Vladimir Putin is definitely heading for another term that by the end, will have seen him in power for a quarter of a century.
Putin presides over a continually weak economy, creating growing discontent on the streets, which in turn has led authorities to crush dissent even harder. Most recently, it resulted in banning prominent opposition leader Alexei Navalny from running for president after being convicted of embezzlement.
The all-too-predictable script to Russian politics to one side, Putin’s eyes will be fixed on the big prize – pulling off this summer’s World Cup, to be held in cities spanning the country. It will be another assertion of Russia in global affairs, and without a doubt an unforgettable summer of football.
Finally, it will be decision time for Brexit. There’s more than a year to go before the UK formally leaves the European Union in March 2019, but the deal firstly on transition and then the future relationship will have to be thrashed out in good time before autumn, when it gets passed to the European Parliament, which wields a veto on the final deal.
The agreement reached at the beginning of December on phase one of “sufficient progress” on the divorce deal is merely the start of a long road ahead. Around the EU table, there’s renewed confidence in Theresa May in having been able to square the circle of the Irish border after the curveball thrown by the party that keeps her in power, the DUP. But the Irish question hasn’t disappeared altogether. Brussels will repeat its usual refrain in demanding more detail as Mrs May battles with squabbles in her Cabinet about what the end position should look like.
In her New Year message, the Prime Minister herself admitted this year had been a rollercoaster ride – “of course any year brings its challenges”, but she remained upbeat.
Indeed, May finished the year in a stronger position than many could have possibly imagined, after several Cabinet resignations, a parliamentary sex scandal, losing her majority in June’s snap election and dogged determination from both Remainer rebels and staunch Brexiteers on the backbenches that want her to change course.
A Cabinet reshuffle on the cards – a way of her shoring up her position in office – probably won’t be enough to stop the continued speculation about her future. There’s no knowing where the next crisis could possibly come from…
Though May made clear Brexit was “crucial”, it was “not the limit of our ambitions”, she said. But if Mrs May wants a decent deal, there’ll be far too many Brussels talks and late-night Commons sittings to tackle anything else.
The strength of unity within Europe over the past year has shocked many – after a prolonged period of weak growth that brought a tide of Euroscepticism.
The doom-sayers who predicted more EU nations would follow Britain out of the bloc were wrong. Europe has a new sense of purpose, and successive elections have cemented strong leadership – Merkel and Macron the obvious examples – who have addressed migration and extremism head on instead of ignoring it.
But populism is no longer the exception – it is the political mainstream.
It makes the guessing-game a trivial pursuit – because this year Euroscepticism could finally be a vote-winner.
As the world commemorated the 15th anniversary of 9/11, the singularly most important event of the 21st century so far, many hundreds of thousands of people packed streets and squares in Catalonia to celebrate their national day.
The excitement surrounding last year – that Catalonia was on the cusp of independence and tangible change – contrasted with a much more uncertain feeling this time round. With the backdrop of nine months of political paralysis in Madrid, talk of independence is still very much around, but far from being shouted about the tone is noticeably more muted with numbers attending events across the region down from 2015.
Few would have imagined a year ago the possibility of a third round of national elections should political parties fail to come to an agreement by the end of October, a prospect that three quarters of Spaniards are against, according to a new poll released today. The political blockade is by far the biggest obstacle for leaders in Catalonia – they simply don’t know who will be across the table in Madrid to negotiate a break-up from Spain.
Madrid is predictably standing firm, so much so incumbent Foreign Minister José Manuel García-Margallo said on Saturday that an economic crisis or even a terrorist attack was preferable to the irreversible break-up of Spain.
Similar fractures in the ruling Catalan coalition are slowing down the secessionist process. The pro-independence Junts Pel Sí coalition, formed of centre-right to left wing parties, and the CUP, an anti-EU and anti-euro party, could lose its majority if elections were held according to polls. It reflects the thoughts of some analysts that the independence movement is losing steam, ultimately delaying the declaration of independence pencilled in for sometime next year.
Anti-independence parties have criticised the national day, or Diada, for being hijacked by supporters of independence, not a day for all Catalans to enjoy regardless of politics.
You only have to listen to Barcelona’s mayor Ada Colau to understand the complexity of the issue of independence. Somewhat ambiguously she voted “yes” to independence in a de-facto referendum in 2014, but Colau says she is not in favour of independence. She joined Catalans on the streets for the first time this year, together with members of Podemos, a party which is pro-referendum but at the same time, anti-independence.
The prospect of yet another round of elections, which Catalan president Carles Puigdemont hopes to call before this time next year, looks set to be a sort of end game. He said the vote will be “a transition period between post-autonomy and pre-independence”.
Puigdemont has said he will make use of a confidence vote in the Catalan parliament on 28th September to put a referendum on the table to Madrid.
Heralded as a once in a lifetime opportunity a year ago, independence in Catalonia looks to still be in its infancy. The momentum is still there, but with the roadblocks of coalition disagreement and no certainty as to who will be running Spain, there are many factors that can still derail the delicate independence process, compounded by a feeling of impatience that political leaders need to deliver results more quickly.
It’s the start of a storm in Spain – about so-called ‘political tourism’.
Members of Spain’s leftist party, Podemos, the Basque terrorist group, ETA, and a Catalan anti-capitalist party, CUP, headed for Venezuela in a private plane laid on by President Nicolás Maduro – leader of a nationalist government which many now regard as a regime.
Now Spain’s politicians are demanding explanations.
Exclusive images from Spanish TV channel Antena 3 last night showed figures from all three groups on the tarmac at Madrid’s airport in December 2014 headed for Caracas on a presidential plane laid on especially by Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro.
What were these groups doing being flown privately by this divisive political figure – and how close are they to him?
Among those on board was Anna Gabriel, the spokesperson and politician for the CUP, a Catalan anti-capitalist, anti-EU and anti-NATO party which is propping up a pro-independence Catalan government.
All she had to say to reporters was that she was up to “very interesting things” in Venezuela.
Very interesting things included discussing neo-Fascism, the destructive effects of capitalism, the right to decide about the break-up of Spain, and ETA.
Another aboard was Iñaki Gil de San Vicente, the father-in-law of the number one man in ETA, the Basque terrorist group responsible for killing 829 people in its struggle for separatism. He’s also the father of a Basque terrorist arrested in France.
And from Spain’s third biggest political force, Podemos, was María José Aguilar, member of the party in Spain’s central Castilla la Mancha region. The party wished to distance Aguilar’s journey from the party, saying that she went to attend the conference for its intellectual, artistic discussions instead.
15 Spanish nationals were aboard the plane in total, with over 30 people from 13 nationalities flying altogether.
The Spanish Interior Minister questioned the circumstances surrounding the private plane – and the consequences the scandal could have on Spanish politics. Jorge Fernández Díaz called it “unprecedented” and said it wasn’t the “normal thing” for a leader of a country to lay on a plane.
The images have caused uproar on social media, with some users condemning Antena 3 for the poor taste of its journalism. The scoop was also splashed over nearly all of the front pages of Spain’s daily newspapers.
Spain’s newest political party Podemos – which had one of its members on board – has previously allied itself with chavismo – a left-wing ideology which takes its name from the late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez. It was an answer to capitalism, all about dealing with rising inequality in Latin America by promoting nationalisation, social welfare and patriotism.
Podemos even received funding from the Venezuelan government and senior figures have worked for the leadership, all while praising its democracy as one of the world’s best.
Venezuela is in the midst of a deep economic crisis. The drop in oil prices means debt repayment is becoming near on impossible and the country has finally declared an economic emergency.
Inflation has been rocketing for several years already, making the bolívar currency virtually worthless, while the economy has been shrinking since the beginning of 2014. It’s these alarming figures the Venezuelan government is seeking to hide from its own people.
Food shortages are all too common. Imports for staples such as eggs, flour and milk have become too expensive for the government, leaving supermarket shelves empty.
According to the latest Press Freedom Index from 2015, its media ranked 137 out of 180 countries, compared to Spain (33rd). Journalists have been harassed and the press has been polarised and limited.
It says: “Many local and foreign journalists were the targets of threats, insults, physical attacks, theft, destruction of equipment and arrests during a succession of protests.”
With national elections in Spain in December still far from producing a new government, any tremors of instability there are enough to whip up a political storm.
Forget for a moment the huge hype and expectation surrounding today. Hearing the calls from the Catalan parliament for a declaration of independence, the first steps towards a new European state and then a constitutional block from Madrid, you’d think it nothing out of the ordinary for a secessionist movement with more momentum than ever before.
The language was just as uncompromising and provocative, talking of the “democratic disconnection” of Catalonia from the rest of Spain.
The Catalan parliament’s approval of a move towards independence within 18 months was met with the waving of Catalan senyera flags, some deputies on their feet in applause, a minority sober in defeat instead waving the national Spanish flag. Yet proceedings were noticeably much more muted than in the past.
Today’s constitutional earthquake will send tremors all the way to Madrid as Barcelona hastily embarks on setting up state institutions such as an independent social security system and tax authority within just thirty days.
But have things really changed in Catalonia as to the likelihood of independence?
What will follow is the next episode in the strained relationship between this region and the Madrid government, who will slap down the rules of the Constitution, with the courts preparing a case against leaders in Barcelona.
Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy appeared in front of cameras minutes after the vote repeating that “the government will not allow this to continue” and saying he will use all legal and political means at his disposal to put a stop to the process.
The inconstitutional snub was echoed by Socialist Party leader Pedro Sánchez, who will meet Rajoy on Tuesday to discuss their counter-attack.
Sánchez said: “The majority of Catalans don’t want secession. Breaking the law is denying democracy.”
Regardless, the document says it will ignore any such threats from instutitions of the Spanish state, including the constitutional court.
The extraordinary events in the Catalan parliament in Barcelona also addressed the elephant in the room – the future of president Artur Mas, whose political future looks to be hanging in the balance.
The CUP, the coalition partner of Junts Pel Sí, the pro-independence coalition who won a majority in September’s elections oppose Mr Mas serving a third term as President.
Negotiations with the leftist, anti-establishment, anti-EU party haven’t got very far since the elections, but Mas is trying his best to win them over with policy sweeteners in what critics call a vanity project.
They are calling for another leader to be appointed, perhaps Junts Pel Sí leader Raul Romeva. But if an agreement isn’t found, yet more elections will have to be called for March next year.
Mas has embodied the defiant push for Catalan independence, buoyed by a pro-independence win in the September elections on a seat basis, but falling short of a majority he would have needed in a proper referendum – pro-independence parties won 47.8 per cent of the vote.
Nonetheless, beginning his address to the Parlament, he said the ballot boxes had spoken, legitimising the majority vote that was to come.
Critics of Mas say he has isolated himself from Catalan public opinion, which evidently remains deeply divided on the issue of secession. Business leaders too say that with his majority only assured by the CUP party, he has handed the independence movement to leftist radicals.
Anti-independence party Ciudadanos, the second-largest party in the Catalan parliament that looks set to rock the boat in Spain’s general election on 20th December, ironically said that ongoing cases of corruption – of which Mr Mas is part – have nothing to do with the process.
They warned today’s events were the greatest threat to Spain’s democracy for the past thirty years.
The last election is only as important as the next. With the make-up of Spain’s next government unclear and with coalition agreements expected to extend well into January, parties of all colours are exploiting the Catalan situation to gain votes.
Aside from Spain’s economic recovery, the unity of Spain is a key election trump card, especially for Rajoy. He wants to be seen as the leader who stands for stability and managing the breakaway Catalan region.
The constitutional fallout from the defiance on show could mean tough financial sanctions – even on individual leaders, which could potentially mean prison sentences.
It could also sour any potential negotiations between leaders in Catalonia and the next Spanish government.
Pro-independence politicians remain more defiant and determined than ever. For Madrid, it’s another case of closing the stable door after the horse has bolted.
This struggle of democracy against democracy is a long way from ending.