Monday

20th Sep 2021

Opinion

Spain's Court of Auditors vs Catalan independence

  • Last week, the Spanish Court of Auditors demanded €5.4m from 34 Catalans associated with the independence "process" (Photo: Assemblea.cat)

Only days after what some considered to be a step towards concord between the Spanish government and pro-independence Catalans, ex-Catalan politicians and their associates tied to the independence movement have been charged millions of euros for the misuse of public funds.

Last week, the Spanish Court of Auditors demanded €5.4m from 34 Catalans associated with the "process".

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The embargoes implemented on the likes of Carles Puigdemont and Oriol Junqueras have raised concerns amongst many about Spain's lack of democracy, namely on freedom of political expression.

In a recent resolution by the Council of Europe, the Parliamentary Assembly noted—in reference to Spain— that "mere expression of pro-independence views is not a ground for criminal prosecution". However the embargoes implemented by the Court of Auditors does not seem to respect this principle.

The Court of Auditors - criticised as being strongly-politicised and famous for its cases of nepotism - is the supreme governmental accounting body of Spain - responsible for controlling the public accounts and auditing the accountancy of the political parties, in accordance with the Spanish Constitution.

Seven of 12 are Partido Popular

The court is and has been controlled by the Partido Popular (PP)—a not-uncommon reality for the major Spanish courts—with seven of the 12 councillors coming from the Conservative party.

Amongst the auditors is Manuel Aznar López, the brother of former PP Spanish president José María Aznar—a symbol for many of the politicisation of the court.

The PP has blocked the renewal of the court's auditors, in what many consider to be a flex of their control over the body at a key moment. The blockade that they maintain in key institutional bodies is now accompanied by the argument that: "the executive of Pedro Sánchez has shown that it is not to be trusted."

With the PP's hard stance against Catalan independence, and their expressed outrage regarding the recent partial pardons, it would seem in their best interest to keep control of the body which has the power to economically paralyse anyone promoting - or even mentioning - Catalan independence.

Whilst the PP dominate control over the court, criticism has been voiced regarding the Socialist Party's (PSOE) lack of objection to the embargoes.

Some 11 out of 12 of the councillors were in favour, meaning only one of the other five members - all PSOE - rejected the €5.4m amount.

The executive's top lawyers have also remained somewhat inactive in opposing the rulings —a "stone in the path" in the words of Sánchez's transport minister José Luis Ábalos, towards an impactful dialogue between the Spanish government in Madrid and the pro-independence Generalitat in Barcelona.

The events have not only led some to ask whether the Catalonia/Spain conflict has taken one step forward and now two steps back, but also to question how much control the democratically-elected executive has, and how much lies with - what many consider to be - the biased and undemocratic courts?

The embargoes are in connection with foreign public spending that can be linked to the independence movement.

That means, for example, if during a past trip, or foreign event, a politician mentioned Catalan independence, the court may rule the money spent on that trip or event was a "misuse of public funds".

The application of such rulings has caused many to refer to the court as Orwellian, authoritarian, and even reminiscent not only of Franco-ism, but of the harsh arbitrary domination during the Spanish Inquisition.

The rulings have been criticised as a stain upon Spain's democracy - a country whose treatment of dissidents has commonly been compared to Turkey in European institutions over the past few weeks.

Artur Mas—former president of the Generalitat from 2010 - 2016—was charged €2.8m.

Exiled Junts leader Carles Puigdemont, and former vice-president of the Catalan government Oriol Junqueras, were both charged €1.9m.

Also amongst the sanctioned are Raul Romeva, Mireia Vidal and Albert Royo.

But arguably the case which has sparked the highest outrage from the international community has been the charges against Andreu Mas-Colell.

Mas-Collel, who served as the minister for economy from 2010 to 2016, is a world-renowned economist and professor at Pompeu Fabra University (UPF).

When Mas-Collel was charged by the court €2.8m for his support for the "process", 33 Nobel prize laureates in economics gathered in solidarity to contest the Tribunal de Cuentas' condemnation of the professor and signed a petition fighting against the proceeding.

They argued that the administrative body did not belong to the judiciary, the direct charges against Mas-Colell were not specified, and that the huge sum could mean all of his assets could be seized.

Last month, the European Economic Association also expressed their solidarity with professor Mas-Colell.

An appeal against the Court of Auditors' rulings can take years, meaning those sanctioned may have to liquidate their assets without a proper trial and for what many would consider little legitimate justification and evidence, and be financially impaired for a long period of time with no guarantee of retrieval.

What seems to be the more popular interpretation of the proceedings is a manipulable body by those in control for economic domination against dissidents, or merely those associated with differing political views.

The embargoes - which are drawing more and more international concern, with now more than 14,000 signatures on the petition calling for the dropping of the charges against professor Mas-Colell - have come at a crucial time for diplomacy between Spain and Catalonia.

Last Tuesday, president Sánchez and president Aragonès met at the Moncloa in Madrid for a meeting which lasted more than two hours.

Aragonès stressed amnesty and the right for self-determination on his agenda and Sánchez promoted concord and dialogue —in line with the Spanish constitution.

Whilst the two did manage to set a date in September to undertake the Catalan conflict dialogue, the recent rulings of the Court of Auditors have added another layer of tension between the two sides, especially considering the charges against Aragonès' party (ERC) president Oriol Junqueras.

Fuelling fire?

A question worth asking is what effect will these proceedings have on Catalonia's appetite for independence?

One of the major motivations for Catalan parties to adopt pro-independence mandates was the biased nature and arbitrariness of the Constitutional Court in their rulings against the autonomy statute.

So, it doesn't seem unlikely that the rulings of the Court of Auditors may reinforce the sense of domination felt by many Catalans by the Spanish courts and encourage their strive for sovereignty.

Author bio

Tom Canetti is a freelance journalist in Barcelona, focussing on corruption, conflict, macroeconomics, and political developments in Catalonia and the EU.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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