Barcelona 6 AUG 2019 – 16:19 CEST
With its 95 representatives, Barcelona is one of the cities in the world with more consuls general. There are historical examples: the United States consulate was promoted in 1797, the third in Europe of the newborn country. In recent years, however, being a diplomat in the Catalan capital has become an uncomfortable task due to the independence process. The Generalitat has tried to mobilize foreign representatives in their attempt to internationalize sovereignty; five honorary consuls have been dismissed for being considered close to independence; and there have been protests and attacks on diplomatic legations.
The Catalan president, Quim Torra, again used his recent annual meeting with the consular body to deliver a fiery speech on indigenous politics. “The situation of injustice persists and the exercise of democracy in our country remains compromised,” he said in relation to the imprisoned independence leaders. A year earlier, Torra had told the consuls that he would not give up the right to self-determination and that he had them to defend that “in Catalonia, the concept of republic is synonymous with freedom.”
“It is increasingly difficult to be consul in Barcelona,” denounces a diplomat
In 2017, the then president Carles Puigdemont assured the consular body that the Government was going to overcome the “difficulties” that came around the illegal 1-O referendum, which resulted in its escape from Spanish justice to Belgium. A year earlier, Puigdemont came to affirm before diplomats that “in a few months” Barcelona would be the capital of a State.
The majority of consuls accredited in the city of Barcelona – 41 career and 54 fees, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs data – declined to be cited in this article alleging a desire for diplomatic privacy. Several of them, however, spoke on condition of anonymity or referred to their embassies in Madrid.
One of the exceptions was the German consul, Peter Rondorf. “Companies require a stable legal framework. Undoubtedly, political uncertainty has negative economic consequences, ”he says of the independence debate, which he has publicly rejected.
Although practically no country recognized in 2017 the unilateral declaration of secession of Catalonia, the process has made many diplomats in Barcelona feel trapped in a struggle. Some complain of fear of being used by the Generalitat or accuse Foreign Affairs of wanting to limit them.
Consuls have mostly administrative functions, such as helping their countrymen with various procedures. Political relations fall to embassies. But it is not unusual for consuls to have contact with the local political or business class, a power that the Generalitat has tried to exploit and that the Government has followed with suspicion.
As dean of the consular body in Barcelona, which brings together the entire diplomatic collective, the British Lloyd Milen coordinates meetings with political, business or cultural entities. “We are all professionals. We understand our role, ”says the consul. Together with many of his diplomatic colleagues, he met in April with Foreign Minister Josep Borrell, who last year refuted President Torra’s statements before the consuls. But on the date, says Milen, they received no guidelines. Borrell himself denied that they spoke about the independence issue.
The ‘procés’ has made them feel trapped in a political struggle
Foreign Ministry sources call the relationship with the consuls in Barcelona “fluid”, but remember that it is the embassies that are in charge of the political relationship. Even so, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Generalitat, Alfred Bosch, met with 11 consuls between January and April of this year, according to a spokesman for his department, who describes the contacts as “regular and public”, but declines to assess the relationship with the ministry.
“We have some distrust with the Generalitat if there are always political issues related to any event,” laments a diplomat from an EU country in Barcelona who declines to be identified.
The diplomat argues that multinationals with investments are still in Catalonia because “they do not see a secession likely.” And he endorses the phrase of Jean-Claude Juncker, the outgoing president of the European Commission, in stating: “No EU country would recognize an independent Catalonia because we do not want an EU of 98 regions.”
Yellow and Falange graffiti at headquarters
The political turmoil has placed in the last year and a half some diplomatic legations in the spotlight. The facade and windows of the European Commission delegation were subjected in June to yellow graffiti, in a presumed allusion to the symbolism by imprisoned independence politicians. The place has become the epicenter of sovereign protests over the position of the European Union in the Catalan conflict. Last February, a call from the Catalan National Assembly (ANC) resulted in the occupation and blocking of the delegation, which a diplomat considers a “very dangerous precedent”.
In August 2018, Falange supporters made graffiti at the entrance of the building where the Belgian consulate is located for residing Puigdemont in that country. Five months earlier, there was an independentist protest in front of the German consulate after the arrest of the expresident in Germany.
“It is increasingly difficult to be a consul in Barcelona,” denounces another diplomat, who also requests anonymity. He accuses the Foreign Ministry of pressuring and trying to influence the consular body so that they “only make visas” and do not have political contacts, but defends that their function is to speak with the whole political arc and attract investments. The diplomat claims to accept only one in 15 invitations from the Generalitat, but he argues that, as a courtesy, speeches that may not be liked, as in other countries, should be heard.
According to the diplomat, the five dismissals of honorary consuls – who are ordinary citizens – have stressed the consular community in Barcelona. The last one was that of Greece, Fernando Turró, who was dismissed last October, at the request of the Socialist Executive, after attending a demonstration with a shirt with the stele, the independence flag. The other four – Latvia, the Philippines, Bulgaria and Finland – were dismissed during the PP Government for being considered akin to sovereignty.
Albert Ginjaume, the former Finnish representative, says he still does not know why he was dismissed in February 2018, although he suspects that he was organizing, as secretary of the consular body, a lunch with Mercè Conesa, of the Partit Democrat Europeu Català (PDeCAT). Conesa was then acting as president of the Diputación de Barcelona and as mayor of Sant Cugat del Vallès, historical fief of Catalan nationalism.
Ginjaume denies having positioned himself politically and, after his termination, was backed in writing by the executive of all consuls. “What we think each of the honorary consuls to the Spanish State worries relatively little. He is very concerned that our way of thinking and what we can do influences career consuls, ”he says.