Josep Borrell entered Spain's foreign ministry with his attention fixed on a single idea: combating the Catalan independence movement at international level. He made this absolutely clear just after he was sworn in, in an interview with five leading European newspapers. His obsession, he explained, was to repair "the damage done to Spain's image" by the Catalan independence issue, to put an end to the "black legend" which, according to him, was establishing itself in certain sectors of international public opinion.
The selection of Borrell for the foreign affairs portfolio was in itself symptomatic, a portent of what ended up happening. A man of strong anti-independence convictions, he decided to come out of retirement from politics precisely in response to the Catalan process. Always pointing to his experience of three years as president of the European Parliament (2004-2007), he became one of the stars of the demonstrations called by the anti-independence group Catalan Civil Society. In this context he spoke out in favour of the application of article 155 - under which Madrid assumed direct rule over Catalonia - and demanded that “that justice be done” with regard to the pro-independence leaders.
The panorama that Borrell has stepped into as minister is undoubtedly more complicated than that of the previous Popular Party-led Spanish government. Just after he entered the post, Germany and Belgium decided to reject Spain's requests for extradition on rebellion charges of the exiled Catalan politicians, a development that led judge Pablo Llarena to withdraw the European arrest warrants for all those in exile. Faced with this scenario, he has intensified the PP's offensive. Using the same weapons, but with more ammunition.
Vetoes, breaking off relations... Borrell has intensified the PP's offensive, using the same weapons, but with more ammunition.
An initial clear example of this was seen in Brussels itself, when the Spanish foreign minister asked Belgium to defend judge Llarena after Carles Puigdemont and the Catalan government in exile had filed a legal suit against the Spanish judge. The Belgian authorities did not agree to the request.
But this week, Borrell has been flexing the Spanish state's muscles once again in Belgium. Last Tuesday, in an unprecedented move, he withdrew diplomatic status for the representative of the Flanders regional government in Spain and declared that he would not grant diplomatic accreditation for any replacement. The reason was the statement from the speaker of the Flemish Parliament, Jan Peumans, who said that the existence of political prisoners made Spain “incapable of meeting the conditions to form part of a democratic Europe”. Earlier, Borrell had already called the Belgian ambassador in for consultations.
The following day, on Wednesday, the minister's pressure successfully forced the firing of Greece's honorary consul in Barcelona, Fernando Turró, for “offending the flag of the Spanish state”. The motive was his participation in an event with Carles Puigdemont in December 2017 and his assistance at the last mass rally on Catalan National Day wearing a pro-independence group's t-shirt. This is not a new practice: the government of Mariano Rajoy had made similar moves to achieve the dismissal of the Barcelona-based consuls of Latvia, the Philippines and Finland.
And on Thursday, pressure from the Spanish embassy in Belgium prevented a planned event featuring exiled Catalan minister Lluís Puig. Puig was supposed to be opening the exhibition Export BCN - Import WBA organized by the architecture school of the Université Libre de Bruxelles. And this, despite the fact that at present Puig occupies a public post: he is director of the Catalan government programme for the internationalization of Catalan culture.
But the vetoes have not only taken place abroad, but also at home. On 8th October, minister Borrell announced that he had not invited Catalan president Quim Torra to the Union for the Mediterranean forum, held that day in Barcelona, so that he would not have a platform on which to "continue vilifying the good name of Spain and to distort this meeting and turn it into something different from what it should be.
The minister has also lodged legal appeals against the reopening of the Catalonia government's offices of representation abroad, which had been closed down by Madrid under article 155. Borrell argued that the Catalan administration had technically broken a Spanish law, by not given prior notice to the Sánchez government of its intention to open offices in other countries.
The team of ex-minister Dastis, entirely absorbed
Whenever a change of government occurs, there are changes in embassy personnel. Since Borrell entered the ministry, according to the latest official data, there have been 74 cessations of ambassadors, of the almost 200 countries where Spain has representation. Removal of ambassadors have taken place in fifteen European countries (not including Russia), and others in the international institutions, such as Spain's permanent representative in the Council of Europe.
Last August, Borrell assured that the diplomatic replacements had been "less extensive and expeditious" than in other changes of government, and he justified the moves by saying that in some cases they were embassies “of special political significance for the new government”. In spite of the high number of changes, the minister has opted for continuity with the former government in a key aspect: all members of the foreign affairs team under the Rajoy government have been placed in embassy positions.
Some of these are in key postings, such as the Spanish embassy in Belgium, one of the diplomatic battlefronts of the Spanish state. Since September 14th, the Spanish ambassador in the European capital is Beatriz Larrotcha, previously foreign affairs undersecretary, the second in command of PP foreign minister Alfonso Dastis. Larrotcha was the person charged with the job of journeying to Catalonia on 31st October 2017 to justify the application of article 155 to the diplomatic corps based in Barcelona. She was also responsible at that time for setting in motion the administrative process for the closure of Catalan offices abroad under 155.
The official who was responsible for setting in motion the closure of Catalan offices abroad under 155 was kept on by Borrell and assigned as ambassador to Belgium.
Meanwhile, Larrotcha's husband, Bernardo de Sicart, who for the last few years directed the international affairs area on Mariano Rajoy's staff - and was also the prime ministerial head of protocol - has been assigned to the embassy in Luxembourg.
The three senior civil servants who were ministerial secretaries under Dastis have also been placed abroad - or are about to be. Ildefonso Castro, who was the foreign affairs secretary, is the new ambassador to Ireland, a country where he previously served as a diplomatic. The former secretary of international cooperation and for Latin America and the Caribbean, Fernando García Casas, has filled the vacancy at the Spanish embassy in Brazil. Borell is still to place Jorge Toledo, former state secretary for European affairs.
Even the ex-minister himself, Alfonso Dastis, has been sent to Rome as ambassador in the Italian Republic. This was, in fact, the destination that Dastis sought when he was Spain's permanent representative at the EU, but he was then appointed as foreign minister in substitution of José Manuel García Margallo.
Beyond personell from the former foreign affairs team, there have also been other significant substitutions. The new ambassador in Washington is Santiago Cabanas, who was head of foreign affairs ministerial staff during the José María Aznar government, and then general director of foreign policy and multilateral, global and security issues, under Rajoy. José María Robles Fraga, nephew of former Franco-era minister Manuel Fraga and a former PP parliamentarian, is the new ambassador in Finland, ten years after being substituted as ambassador to Pakistan. The choice for permanent representative at the UN and the international organizations based in Vienna is the Catalan Senén Florensa, foreign affairs secretary under the Catalan government of Artur Mas and close to the conservative Catalan circles of the old Unió party.
From the 'Montserrat commission' to UPyD
Combating the narrative of the independence movement abroad gradually became a priority for the Spanish government as the Catalan process advanced and put the Spanish state under pressure. Under Rajoy's earlier foreign minister Margallo, the so-called “Montserrat commission” was created, aimed at counterbalancing the Catalan government's diplomatic initiatives abroad. Margallo himself confirmed the existence of this body in an interview with El Nacional in September 2017 (link in Catalan).
As the minister explained, this commission, made up of political and business leaders and other members of civil society, “met every Friday from 2011 onwards, to analyze the Catalan question, fundamentally in the aspects affecting foreign affairs, and it constructed a narrative that was posted on the ministry's website and communicated to all embassies and consulates”. He justified it by saying that “in the face of the independence movement's line disseminated by the Catalan government, there was a version that gave Spain's arguments”.
Seven years later, this month, the current minister has created the so-called secretariat for Global Spain, which is to replace the criticised High Commission for Brand Spain. The entrepreneur and High Commissioner Carlos Espinosa de los Monteros has been sacked. The objective of the new secretariat is the same: in the words of Borrell, “to present Spain as it is: a full democracy”. Its official brief is to "take measures to improve the foreign image of Spain” and to stimulate public and private Spanish action abroad “aimed at promoting this image”. The main focus of action thus changes from economic to political.
The job of countering the independence narrative internationally has been given to an ex-Union, Progress and Democracy MP, who is critical of Catalan delegations abroad and the official use of Catalan in European institutions.
The official chosen to lead this new secretariat is Irene Lozano, writer and former MP for the centralist Union, Progress and Democracy party who switched to the Socialist lists for the 2015 elections. At that time, even before Catalonia's first unofficial independence consultation in 2014, she declared that in Catalonia there were “aspects that would justify the imposition of article 155”.
Also at that time, and with regard to the area she now directs, Lozano questioned the delegations abroad opened by Spain's autonomous communities, because “those communities cannot represent the Spanish state”, there cannot be “17 voices". As for the Catalan offices, which she disparagingly called embajaditas - little embassies - she said that in general they served "nationalist construction, to sustain an elite, a regional oligarchy, which uses them to reaffirm its power and create a client network”.
In a written question addressed to the Spanish government, Lozano also questioned the utility of using Spain's co-official languages (Catalan, Euskera and Galician) in European institutions, due to the cost of translation. The Spanish government responded that it did not have any additional cost.