Andrej Hunko, MP for Germany’s Die Linke, has been a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe since 2010. He is familiar with the Council’s inner workings. Following a recent debate, the Council demanded the release of the Catalan political prisoners and called on Spain to drop the European arrest warrants issued against the exiled Catalan leaders. Mr Hunko is one of the people who monitored the debate more closely and is well-acquainted with the case of Catalonia. This newspaper has spoken to him to hear his views and learn more about the matter.
—Catalonia’s political prisoners have been pardoned recently. Is this down to the Council of Europe or did Spain’s socialist party make their own decision independently?
—The Spanish government was well aware of the Council’s report and they knew what the outcome of the debate would be. The session was held on a Monday afternoon and that same morning PM Pedro Sánchez announced that the Catalan prisoners would be pardoned. The European media did not mention the Council of Europe, at least not in German, only Sánchez’s pardons. He was smart. I would have done the same thing. Yet the truth is that the Council of Europe played an important role. It is a body that matters to Spain. After General Franco’s regime, Spain initially joined the Council of Europe, adhered to the Human Rights treaty and then approved the constitution. It was a first step towards democracy. And that is a significant difference with Turkey. Erdogan, in particular, won’t accept court rulings and criticism. Spain is more sensitive.
—Are the Council of Europe’s decisions legally binding?
—No. We cannot enforce our decisions. But they are important and have an effect.
—The report you approved also indicates that the Spanish government should heed the second part, where you state that the arrest warrants must be dropped. Will they comply?
—I don’t know. I think it would be very good, if they did. However, I’ve become aware that PM Sánchez is under a lot of pressure from the Spanish right. Two weeks ago I attended Podemos’ Party Conference in Madrid. That same day I witnessed thousands of people marching to protest the pardons. I’ve seen the pressure that the right puts on Pedro Sánchez. But it would be good if they heeded that part of the resolution. It would be good for Spain’s image. They failed to strip Puigdemont of his rights as MEP. All in all, it’s not great for Spain’s reputation. However, I am not sufficiently familiar with the home debate in Spain and I don’t know whether Sánchez wants to do it or not.
—You were present at the debate in the Council of Europe. How did that pan out?
—A clear majority agreed that the Catalan prisoners had been treated in a manner that was unacceptable. In October 2017 we had a debate on Catalonia, which I promoted, in the aftermath of the baton charges [by Spanish police on 1 October, the day of the independence referendum]. A large majority condemned the violence and made it clear that this was not the way to deal with the problem.
—What arguments did the opposition put forward?
—The Spanish MPs, except ERC, Podemos and EAJ-PNV, voted against the report. They argued that the Catalan issue was about corruption. The Turkish, Spanish and a number of conservative MPs failed to secure a majority vote against the report. Some delegations are highly dependant on their government, which determines their vote, but it’s not always like that in other cases. Then the trend is to vote in favour of the report being discussed. The arguments put forward by the Spanish socialist representatives, the PP and Vox [Spain’s far-right party] were not convincing. The PSOE was adamant that it was a corruption case where public funds had been misused. The PP and Vox were much more aggressive. But none were persuasive. Incidentally, the president of the socialist group, a German, didn’t cast a vote.
—Does the Catalan issue get any attention in Germany at present?
—At the moment, it doesn’t. It did and it was massive when Puigdemont was arrested. From 1 October 2017 to the summer of 2018 people were very aware of the Catalan case and it garnered a great deal of sympathy. Opinion polls published at the time showed that people didn’t want Puigdemont to be extradited, not even conservative voters. This widespread sympathy is still there, but the case is no longer part of the conversation. Whenever you told people that there were nine Catalan political prisoners —including the parliament’s Speaker— for having allowed a debate, they were very surprised, even party members and those with a keen interest in politics. They didn’t know. The press don’t cover it. Historically, Germany and Spain have been allies and newspapers very often cover international politics under the gaze of the Foreign Affairs Ministry. People are unaware of the issue. There’s been some talk about the pardons, but not much.
—How come Die Linke, Germany’s radical left, has taken a stand for Catalonia?
—Actually, I’d say we stand with democracy, majorities, a political solution and dialogue as a means to resolve the matter. Ever since 1 October and the imprisonment of the Catalan leaders the left has clearly stated that the Guardia Civil violence, the arrests and the prison sentences were unacceptable. Now we can clearly see the right-wing position of Vox and traditional Francoist centralism. However, I recall that there was much debate when I returned to Germany after the [2017 independence] referendum. People were undecided. The left —and I can sympathise— claimed that we didn’t want another situation like Yugoslavia. This is a touchy subject for the radical left. Germany, Austria and the Vatican were the first countries to recognise Croatia and Slovenia in 1991. The left criticised that position and the war in Yugoslavia. Some on the left argued that if we supported Catalonia, we would have another Yugoslavia and we don’t want that. They opposed the crackdown [against Catalonia], but also secession. That’s when I pointed out to them that this issue is about democracy. That’s not the way you should deal with this problem. And you must be aware of the Francoist legacy within the Spanish state. At the time I won the debate and more so on the back of Puigdemont’s arrest. We don’t stand for Catalan independence, but against repression.
—Can you see a possible solution?
—You must engage in a dialogue. I don’t know what the outcome of that will be. The solution might be dialogue with international involvement. In 2017 and 2018 it was patently clear that PM Mariano Rajoy rejected any notion of a dialogue. Spain’s MEPs and Council of Europe members rebuffed the idea that we had proposed of an international mediation. At 10 am on 1 October 2017 the assembly agreed to debate my proposal to discuss the situation in Barcelona during the referendum. The Foreign Affairs minister was in Strasbourg that afternoon and he got on a plane to exercise his influence at the highest level, with our secretary general. The aim, in particular, was to prevent the Council of Europe from getting involved. We had argued that the Council should play a mediating role in the conflict. The Spanish authorities rejected this idea and leaned on the institutions. The notion that this was strictly an internal affair began to make the rounds. We weren’t going to get involved. There was much diplomatic pressure. A great deal. I witnessed it myself. Lately, too, ahead of the recent debate. A flurry of activity behind closed doors.
—Ambassadors would talk to MPs and tell them that this was a bad report and that you could not compare Spain to Turkey. That this was an internal affair. I’ve witnessed diplomacy playing a very active role.
—Yet they lost. How come?
—I don’t know. When I saw that the Commission was largely in favour, I knew how the vote would pan out.
—Would the Council of Europe’s mediating role, which some called for in 2017, be a possibility now?
—The Council of Europe has good instruments to play that role. In particular, the Venice Commission. And the Secretary General. The Council of Europe could play an international mediation role in Catalonia’s case. I believe so. I would say that it is the best suited international organisation in a conflict such as this. It’s got the best experts in matters to do with democracy, the rule of law and constitutional affairs. The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) deals more with security issues.
—Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
—I mentioned it at the beginning: I am very pleased with the position I took in 2017 and to inform Catalans about the importance of the Council of Europe. Nowadays it is taken very seriously. I believe it is good to have the Council when it comes to issues like this. Few institutions are so clearly oriented towards what we call European values. Everyone talks about them, but more often than not, they are empty words. Here we have true resolutions and conventions. And it is pan-European, from east to west. I can’t emphasise enough the crucial importance of this body.