Andreu Mas-Colell, the scorpion and the turtle

  • The home, the pension and the bank accounts of one of the world's leading economists will be seized by the Spanish authorities

Vicent Partal
29.06.2021 - 09:35
Actualització: 29.06.2021 - 11:35

Andreu Mas-Colell is one of the world’s leading economists. He is highly respected in his field. When he decided to step out of his comfort zone and become a minister in the Catalan government, it wasn’t surprising that, in certain contexts, he was better known than the then-president, Artur Mas. Particularly on official visits to the United States and in economic circles. In the US Mas-Colell is highly respected among intellectuals and academics for his many years of dedication to university teaching and for the excellence of his academic work.

Now, however, Professor Mas-Colell is facing an unprecedented situation. His home, his pension and his bank accounts will be seized by the Spanish authorities, as part of the on-going crackdown on the Generalitat’s former efforts in foreign affairs ahead of the 2017 independence referendum. Mas-Colell will be seventy-seven years old on 29 June, the very same day that, alongside forty co-defendants, including Albert Royo, the former head of the Public Diplomacy Council of Catalonia, he will be notified of how much money, the fruits of a life’s work, will be stolen from him in relation to charges, for example, of having approved funds for foreign spending in his government’s budget, as he was legally entitled to do. The situation would be laughable, if it weren’t so serious. It is also highly significant.

These days there is much talk of the granting of pardons. Such overtures are being made with an eye on Europe, in an attempt to show that it’s a time for negotiation and easing the tension, that change is underway. Meanwhile, however, the repression continues unabated. It doesn’t stop, whether through legal, financial or any other means. I believe Mas-Colell’s case perfectly exemplifies three key points.

The first is that no Catalan is free from repression. Abandon all delusions, if you still harbour any. My friend José Eduardo Agualusa once said that “a Jew is someone who is reminded every day that he’s a Jew”, to which I replied that it’s also true of a Catalan. Because it doesn’t matter what one does. Andreu Mas-Colell isn’t going to have his money stolen for what he did or didn’t do while he was a minister, but merely for being a member of the government of Catalonia. And it is being done by an institution that, in spite of its name (Court), fails to uphold the most basic of rights: the right to defend oneself. Of course one can appeal, it’s true. After several years, you may take your case to Europe and win, but in the meantime —and if you’re seventy-seven years old the meantime means a lot— you’ll be financially destitute.

The second is that this financial crackdown is an attempt to discourage everyone from taking public office, particularly those who are most qualified. The seriousness of the situation speaks for itself, as Mas-Colell’s son recently outlined in a thread on Twitter. This Spanish state agency intends to expropriate the assets of forty senior Catalan officials who were members of the government post 2011, accusing them of having funded the independence referendum … in 2017! The Catalan National Assembly didn’t even exist in 2011. No one was even considering a referendum, aside from a few local, non-binding consultations. The 9 November vote hadn’t even been dreamt of. This case isn’t related to the 2017 referendum on self-determination, though even if it were, it wouldn’t make it justified. Instead, this is about plain and simple repression. And teaching the Catalans a lesson. It’s about taking advantage of the circumstances to put a stop to everything. Mas-Colell was a renowned, distinguished Harvard professor who decided to return to Catalonia in 1995 in order to help found Barcelona’s Pompeu Fabra University. Later he agreed to be, first, the Minister of Universities and Research and subsequently the Minister of the Economy. Everyone is entitled to their opinion as to Minister Mas-Colell’s views and policies, but it is clear —and this is evidenced by the situation he currently finds himself in— that he is someone who left behind a very comfortable situation in order to improve Catalonia. Or to serve society, which is precisely what they don’t want to happen.

And the third point. I imagine everyone is familiar with the fable of the scorpion and the turtle. The one in which a scorpion wishing to cross a river seeks the help of a turtle. The turtle agrees on condition that the scorpion mustn’t sting him or they will both drown. Halfway across the river, the scorpion stings the turtle and as they sink below the surface, the turtle asks the scorpion why he would do something as stupid as that. To which the scorpion replies: “I can’t help myself, I’m a scorpion.”

This is the situation we are facing. They neither want to nor are able to help themselves. They will end up sabotaging any attempt to negotiate. They’re like a runaway train. They deliberately relinquished control of the state and now there’s nothing they can do, as they can no longer regain it. Spain is a dead democracy.

Let us imagine for a moment that PM Pedro Sánchez is trying to put into action a master plan to show that a solution to the Catalan issue is back on track —which is what Mas-Colell’s son believes, according to his Twitter post. This is why the nine political prsioners have been released from a prison they should never have been sent to in the first place. However, those in exile will have to keep fighting and, therefore, they will continue to raise questions as to what kind of state Spain is. Meanwhile, the more than four thousand individuals who are facing criminal charges relating to the independence process will be tried in court in a string of cases. And, once again, people will be sent to prison. There will be more political prisoners, many of which are high-ranking government officials. And the international outcry, which seems to be the only thing currently motivating Pedro Sanchez, will continue to grow and grow. As it is growing by the hour in the case of Mas-Colell. Scorpions can’t help but sting.

Which is why they, Pedro Sánchez and those of his ilk, no longer hold the key to ending the crisis. They can take certain measures, engage in some window dressing, which will temporarily appear to ease the tension, but the confrontation between Catalonia and Spain has settled into a form of nation-to-nation combat, which explains why the latter is pulling out all the stops.

The Spanish state understands the situation much better than we do. Maybe some in our country prefer to continue believing in fantasies and master strokes to delay the inevitable, but the window of opportunity to avoid hand-to-hand combat is slowly closing, if it isn’t in fact a total fantasy, as I myself believe. Consequently, there is no more prudent and sensible way out than separation, as fast as possible, at any price and at any cost. Otherwise we will face a gruelling wave of repression which will have no end, in the face of which we will all be helpless. It is not possible for Catalonia to return to the past as an autonomous region because the past has already been destroyed. There is only the path which lies ahead.

PS. There’s been some debate concerning the fable of the scorpion and the turtle. When I wrote the editorial my brain played a trick on me, but it’s all turned out right in the end. As some correspondents have pointed out, I ought to have said the scorpion and the frog, which is the most common version of the fable in Catalan. But for some reason my brain replaced the frog with a turtle. Looking into the matter, however, I discovered that the version I used, that of the scorpion and the turtle, is the Persian original, from a collection of fables by Hossein Va’ez Kashefi in 1500, a version which for some unknown reason my mind had decided was the right one. To tell you the truth, on rereading it, perhaps we ought to conclude that sometimes flying on autopilot, if that was what happened, beats using one’s conscious brain. In the Persian version, the turtle is bitten, but doesn’t die. Only the scorpion drowns, leading the turtle to declare: “Truly have the sages said that to cherish a base character is to give one’s honour to the wind, and to involve one’s own self in embarrassment” Much better, I think. Much better.

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