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Why is Sturgeon rolling out the red carpet for Catalonia’s president?

6 July 2018

8:27 AM

6 July 2018

8:27 AM

Pity the flunky at Bute House, official residence of Nicola Sturgeon, whose job it is to get the red carpet ready for formal visits. The poor lad mustn’t know whether he’s coming or going. Two weeks ago, the First Minister said it wasn’t ‘appropriate at this time for the red carpet to be rolled out’ for Donald Trump. ‘Meetings are one thing, perhaps, but red carpet treatment is another,’ she added. McJeeves shouldn’t store away the crimson runner just yet though. Next Wednesday, Sturgeon will welcome to Bute House, Joaquim ‘Quim’ Torra, the publisher turned politician who was sworn in as Catalan president in May. 

The Scottish Nationalists are dabblers in international solidarity. Palestine: free. Ireland: don’t bring that up. Kurdistan: where? Catalonia is the totem du jour. The Spanish region’s secessionist movement animates the SNP’s grassroots and is reported extensively in pro-government daily, the National. That suits Nicola Sturgeon just fine. If her members are busy fighting for Catalan independence, they’re not asking why, a year after her ‘triple lock’ test was met, she still hasn’t delivered Scottish independence. The Torra invitation is a piece of summer theatre that will get her through to the autumn and her scheduled announcement on Indyref2, which is expected to be a ‘deffo, just not right now’ affair.

A meeting of separatist royalty over tea and shortbread at 6 Charlotte Square sounds like a grand idea. Sturgeon placates her base; Torra gets legitimacy. Unfortunately, Torra is in need of rather a lot of legitimacy, what with his lengthy track record of inflammatory and xenophobic statements about the Spanish. 

In a 2012 article, Torra described those who speak Spanish instead of Catalan as ‘scavengers, vipers, hyenas’ and ‘beasts with human shape’. He added, for good measure: ‘They are here, among us. They dislike any expression of Catalanhood. It’s a sickening phobia. There is something Freudian in these beasts. Or a small bump in their DNA chain.’ 

The use of Spanish and the existence of fluid identity amongst non-nationalist Catalans acutely offends Torra. He complains that: 

‘It is unnatural to speak in Spanish in Catalonia. Not wanting to speak the country’s own language is deracination, provincialism, (and) persistent determination not to accept the identifying traits of where one lives. The language, any language of any country of the world, is the soul of the homeland. Without language there is no country. And when one decides not to speak in Catalan one chooses to turn one’s back on Catalonia.’

Three years later, he asked in a polemic covering much the same ground:

‘Who would dare to say if, of these Spanish that live with us, there is any that ever meant anything in history and to the progress of mankind?’ 

El País, Spain’s leading centre-left newspaper, has compiled some of Torra’s most vehemently anti-Spanish tweets, which include: ‘Spaniards only know how to plunder,’ ‘Shame is a word the Spaniards long ago deleted from their vocabulary,’ and ‘The Spanish in Catalonia are like energy: they don’t disappear, they transform.’ The latter point he teased out in another 2012 polemic, which cited ‘the avalanche of [Spanish] immigrants’ as contributing to the ‘risk that the nation disintegrates like sugar in a glass of milk’. 

He doesn’t sound like much of a ‘civic nationalist’, does he?

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez has called Torra ‘a racist supremacist who denies the identity of half of society’. Anti-racism organisation SOS Racisme Catalunya does not accuse Torra of racism but it says:

‘We reject the discourse that Mr Torra has used repeatedly … a dangerous, irresponsible and unacceptable discourse, based in prejudices.’

For his objections to Spaniards speaking Spanish in Catalonia, El Mundo journalist Rafa Latorre compares Torra to Jörg Haider and says he and the late leader of the Austrian far-right ‘share an identical hatred of bilingualism’.

A leader in El País puts it well: 

‘Elsewhere in Europe, it would be unfathomable that anyone with Torra’s xenophobic and exclusionary credentials could lead a police force of more than 17,000 members, collect taxes to run public services, educate their kids with respect for plurality and guarantee equality and rigour in the news produced and broadcast by public media. But all this, it seems, is indeed possible in the Catalonia of today’s secessionists, who are so detached from the values and principles that have always made it great.’

We might cavil that, actually, it’s not that unfathomable to anyone who has studied Viktor Orban’s dismal reign in Hungary or paid attention to developments from Italy’s new populist government. Yet Nicola Sturgeon has raised her voice against both. For Quim Torra, though, she will be ‘rolling out the red carpet’. 

Does she think this is wise? Apparently so. A Scottish Government spokesman says:

‘As part of Europe, Scotland has a close relationship with the people of Spain and Catalonia. The First Minister regularly meets and hosts leaders visiting Scotland and looks forward to the meeting with the President of Catalonia in Edinburgh to discuss issues on how our two countries can continue to work together.’

When Donald Trump won the 2016 election, Sturgeon told the Scottish Parliament:

‘I, during that campaign, found so many of President-elect Trump’s comments deeply abhorrent and I never want to be, I am not prepared to be, a politician that maintains a diplomatic silence in the face of attitudes of racism, sexism, misogyny or intolerance of any kind.’

She added:

‘This is the time for all of us, no matter how difficult, no matter how controversial or unpopular it may be in certain quarters, to be beacons of hope for those values we all hold so dear.’

Hear, hear. But if those words mean anything the First Minister must apply their reasoning to Quim Torra and his deeply abhorrent comments. We don’t stand up for liberal values by only challenging the reactionaries we disagree with. To maintain a diplomatic silence in the face of Torra’s attitudes would represent not a beacon of hope but a flash of hypocrisy. 

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