The House of Commons in the UK today discussed three urgent questions: one on racism at yesterday's England-Bulgaria football match, one on the "Turkish Incursion into Northern Syria" and one on Catalonia. Specifically, Welsh MP Hywel Williams (Plaid Cymru) asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs "if he will make a statement on the imprisonment of Catalan leaders".
The ensuing debate lasted around 45 minutes and involved some two dozen MPs of different parties, many of whom were critical of the sentences and/or the Spanish government's attitude towards the Catalan independence movement.
Christopher Pincher, the Minister for Europe and the Americas, responded on behalf of the UK government that whilst he "appreciate[s] it is a question that will drive passions" among MPs, the government's position "is clear: it is a matter for Spain". "The United Kingdom strongly supports the rule of law and remains clear that political leaders, like anyone else, have a duty to abide by the law. Questions related to Catalan independence should be resolved within the proper constitutional and legal channels, and questions related to the legal penalties handed down by the courts of Spain are a matter for Spain and its democratic institutions." Later, he added that: "It is incumbent on all of us, as parliamentarians, to encourage sober and reflective debate on what is an exceptionally passionate topic, not least in Spain, and in Catalonia."
Williams discussed details of the sentences, noting that "nine of those accused have already been held in preventive detention for nearly two years and have been visited by Members of this House, Members of the Scottish Parliament and Members of the Senedd of Wales". Among those sentenced, he highlighted former Speaker of the Catalan Parliament Carme Forcadell, who her UK counterpart John Bercow "kindly welcomed to Speaker’s House and to our Chamber when she visited us shortly before her detention": "Her offence, apparently, is to have allowed a parliamentary debate on independence. Yesterday, she was sentenced to 11 and a half years in prison. Mr Speaker, as you confirmed in respect of a point I made some time ago, we would not expect your detention and prosecution were you to allow a debate on Welsh independence."
Indeed, later in the debate, Bercow himself spoke again. Emily Thornberry (Labour) asked the speaker: "Given the sentences handed down by the Spanish courts and the ongoing threat that hangs over the former Catalan leader, Carles Puigdemont, can he confirm that that gentleman would be free to visit Britain and speak to supporters, universities, the media and politicians without any risk of being arrested for extradition for Spain?" Bercow responded: "He could speak here. He could come and speak in the Palace of Westminster and would be extremely welcome." Hansard, the official record of proceedings in the UK Parliament, follows this quote with the note: "[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”]"
MP Jamie Stone (Liberal Democrats), meanwhile, was blunt: "It is a hell of a mess in Spain, and it is likely to get worse. That is the fact of the matter." He notes that he opposed Scottish independence, but that "it is to the great credit of Scotland [...] that we kept it civil and keep it civil today". Given that, and the eventual work leading to peace in Northern Ireland, he suggested "forming together a party, perhaps of people from the independence movements of Scotland and Wales with those of us who were on the other side, to offer our services to Spain to try to de-escalate an extremely dangerous situation at this stage", a suggestion the minister rejected.
The other comments
A number of the MPs were seen to be wearing yellow ribbons, a sign of support for the Catalan prisoners. Indeed one of them, leader of the SNP in Westminster Ian Blackford, had brought up the subject of their imprisonment only yesterday. Today's debate, however, was significantly longer, and saw a number of notable comments by MPs, including:
Hywel Williams: "Bringing criminal charges is no way to resolve political differences. The prosecution and sentencing of the Catalan political and civic leaders [...] is a clear example of how Spain is bringing about a risk of serious and persistent breach of the EU’s founding values of respect for freedom, democracy, justice and human rights, as outlined in article 2 of the treaty. This is a matter for us and the European Union, and is not just a Spanish domestic matter."
Sir Desmond Swayne (Con): "It is a matter for Spain, but it is also shocking, horrifying and a reminder of a former Spanish regime."
Emily Thornberry: "As a former lawyer [...] I am always loath to criticise the courts. I am afraid, though, that what we saw yesterday was the judicial equivalent of what we saw from the Spanish police on the streets of Catalonia two years ago: unnecessary, heavy-handed and entirely counterproductive. In an effort to crush the Catalan independence movement, these incredibly harsh sentences have simply given it fuel."
Peter Grant (SNP): "Gràcies, thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker [for giving me the floor]. It is all very well for the Minister to hide behind the constitutionality of what has been done, but could I gently remind him that some of the most unspeakable acts of evil that Europe saw in the 20th century, and that the United States and South Africa have seen, were constitutional and legal? Being constitutional does not make something either legally or morally defensible."
Paul Sweeney (Lab/Co-op): "The Minister talks about acts that are lawful. We know of many acts in history that have been lawful. I am thinking of the response of the British state to the Easter rising 103 years ago: it might have been lawful, but it can be best described as a massively counterproductive act of repression. Will the Minister urge his Spanish counterparts to at least learn the lessons of history before further inflaming situations and encourage peaceful dialogue and reconciliation?"
Stewart Malcolm McDonald (SNP): "If what is happening in Spain and Catalonia now was what Yanukovych’s Government had been doing to people in Ukraine back in 2014, the Minister would rightly be condemning it, and I would rightly be saying he was right to do so. Why does he not recognise his unique position as a Minister in a Unionist Government who oversaw an independence referendum that was held legally and fairly, and inject some common sense into his Spanish counterparts?"
Susan Elan Jones (Labour): "The Minister has been remarkably weak in his responses, and I do not think he has noticed that only one Member in this Chamber has asked a question that is sympathetic to what he has said. Will he forget the whole debate about separatism, which is totally different, and talk to the Spanish Government, reflecting the concerns of Members across parties in this House and speaking loudly for what we have said today?"
Gavin Newlands (SNP): "In the four and a half years that I have been a Member of this place, I have never been more ashamed of this so-called bastion of democracy than following this weak response from the Minister. I stand in solidarity with all the political prisoners, because let us be in no doubt: that is what they are."
Marion Fellows (SNP): "I am appalled by some of the words coming out of the Minister today. In Catalonia, people get hit, beaten and forcibly removed from places for simply standing up for their human rights, and this Government refuse to condemn that? I find that inexcusable. Estic amb Catalunya! [lit. I'm with Catalonia]"
Ronnie Cowan (SNP): "I have had the incredible privilege of visiting Jordi Cuixart, Jordi Sànchez and Raül Romeva in their prison cells, and they are intelligent, humble and proud men. Everything they have done was peaceful and appropriate. I refuse to be silent because this matters, while the UK Government’s silence has been deafening."
Brendan O'Hara (SNP): "Just because it is Spain does not make this any less wrong. No reasonable person could look at the sentences and say that they were not excessive, punitive, disproportionate and vindictive."
Tommy Sheppard (SNP): "The question is what we think about the jail terms that were issued yesterday to elected politicians. I know what I think. I think that they were barbaric and outrageous and that they diminish how people perceive Spain in the world."