JOHN CARLIN. And Now, Spexit!

Feb 4, 2020

If you have to appear in court, England is a better place to live. The Spanish are outraged that the European Court of Justice, like their German and Belgian counterparts, have refused to extradite the Catalan independence leaders to Spain. On the other hand, Spain has a better way of life and a future, but there is a cause to take up: an independent and non-political judiciary.

I went to the classic, or now not so classic, football game this week between Barcelona and Real Madrid. How we yearn for the times when the teams of Guardiola and Mourinho faced each other! They were epic. Good versus evil, art against cynicism, Messi-Ronaldo, Mozart-Salieri. Fortunately, the excitement in the stands at Camp Nou on Wednesday had little to do with football. The interest of much of the fans resided more in what was happening outside, not on the field. I have never witnessed a game in which political demands generated more noise than the drama on the field.

No, not even at the final of the 1995 Rugby World Cup between South Africa and New Zealand, a topic on which I have shed hundreds of thousands of words. I was reminded of them by a letter published in a Madrid newspaper on Friday. Referring to a book I wrote on the subject, the writer contrasted Nelson Mandela’s unifying impulse with “the opposite effect” of the Barcelona fans, “the headless tsunamis stressing a divided nation.”

Well, since the shouting that took over the Camp Nou field was not “Messi! Messi!”, but “Freedom for political prisoners!” I am not so sure that Mandela was the best person to add light to this particular argument.

Mandela was in jail for 27 years and lived in a country where thousands of political militants were detained without trial, although not so often for as long as the nine Catalan independence leaders who spent up to two years under what they call in Spain, “preventive detention.” The hysteria of opposing shouts in the stadium multiplied the morning after the game when the European Union Court of Justice agreed with the German and Belgian courts in recent years, and refused to follow their Spanish counterparts. To the surprise of many Spanish citizens, the European judges share with the Camp Nou football fans the view that it is not a good idea to put politicians in jail when, unlike Mandela in his day, they have never advocated violence. The outrage from Spaniards has been enormous ─ “the umpteenth contempt for the institutions and laws of Spain,” a columnist shrieked, and suddenly shouts are heard in favour of “Spexit”, the departure of “Spain” from the European Union.

Just what we needed. For me, there is something missing. I have just left England and moved to Spain in part to escape from BorisBrexit. But only in part. The main reason is that, despite so much derision, Spain is – according to my highly subjective opinion – a more civilized place. Yes, deep down it is. The Spaniards know how to live better than the English, and in the end living is not only the most important thing, it is all there is. For the same reason, if they told me that I had to choose between spending the rest of my days in Argentina or England or the United States, I wouldn’t think about it. Argentina by a long shot.

That said, if I had problems with the law I would prefer to go to an English court than to a Spanish one, or to any place where the Spanish have left their mark. As a Spanish legal expert told me the other day, England is a better country to be a citizen; Spain is better for being a person.

It is worth the risk. Besides, there isn’t much to do in England while in Spain there is plenty of work for the future. As in Latin America, there is a good cause in fighting for an honest and independent justice system. It should be THE cause that everyone who values ​​democracy takes up.

It is curious that this is not a big issue in Spain. And it is equally curious that in Spain people do not think it a bad idea to impose cruelly disproportionate sentences on people whose sins were, depending on who we are talking about, silly, living in a fantasy world, cynical or irresponsible. If similar criteria were applied everywhere, half of the world’s politicians would be in jail. But the Spanish and their dangerous laws see Catalan independence leaders as worse than those stealing money from the public purse.

When European courts question the decisions of Spanish justice, “for the umpteenth time,” when publishers and columnists of renowned international publications such as The New York Times or The Financial Times or dozens more, question the wisdom of resolving political issues in court, the time may have come to stop for a moment to reflect. There will be some who have done so, but the most audible voices are those who are locked in wounded pride and claim that “they do not understand us.”

I have seen the syndrome repeated in many countries over a long time. Almost always in infinitely more terrible circumstances, nothing comparable, but the paranoid protective impulse is similar to what we see today in Spain. “What do these foreigners know about our circumstances?”; “Who are they to come to teach us lessons?”; “We have rights and are humans!” The good news is that almost always, in the end, people (although not all) open their eyes and see that the world was right.

I have spent half my life saying that the favourite sport in Spain is not football but indignation. The American novelist Saul Bellow, whom I like to quote, wrote that “outrage corrodes too much: it must be reserved for the main injustice.”

The main reason for outrage in Spain is not, by far, that thousands of people shout in a stadium “Freedom for political prisoners.” Or that young people take to the streets of Barcelona to protest when shamelessly politicized judges put their leaders in jail. The surprise would be that they didn’t. The disappointing thing would be for them to stay with their arms crossed, fiddling with their play stations. They did not disappoint. Well done.

John Carlin is a journalist, author and columnist for both English and Spanish language newspapers. His main areas of interest are international and national affairs, food and football. He is the author of a number of books about Nelson Mandela, and writes regular columns for La Vanguardia and Clarín, (Argentina). This column appeared in Clarín, Argentina, on 21 December 2019, and is translated by Kieran Tapsell,

International Relations, Human Rights

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