BERLIN — At least 89 people across Spain’s semiautonomous Catalonia region were injured on Sunday in clashes with police, according to local authorities. The protests, which drew tens of thousands, came hours after the region’s former leader, Carles Puigdemont, was detained by German police as he was entering the country from Denmark.
The former regional leader had traveled around Europe relatively freely after an earlier international warrant for rebellion and sedition was withdrawn in December. But more arrests were ordered last week, and Spanish authorities reissued their warrant on Friday.
Puigdemont was on his way from Finland to Belgium on Sunday when German authorities stepped in. A first court hearing over whether he should be extradited to Spain is expected later Monday, but no decision is expected.
He and other Catalan politicians stand accused of pursuing a banned independence referendum last October. While the Catalan government argued that the region should be able to decide its own status, Spain denounced the referendum as illegal and harshly cracked down on the October vote.
What is at stake?
Regular demonstrations have taken place in Catalonia for months now — prior to Sunday’s clashes, most recently on Friday when 20 people were injured in separate protests.
The Friday clashes followed a Supreme Court decision that could allow courts to sentence more than two dozen high-profile Catalan politicians on charges similar to those Puigdemont is now facing.
While Friday's protests mainly targeted Spanish government buildings, anger on Sunday was also directed toward the European Union and Germany. Participants chanted slogans such as “This Europe is shameful!” according to the BBC. They complained that European authorities are complicit in what they perceive to be attacks on their freedom of speech and their rights.
As my colleague William Booth writes, the government in Madrid is facing allegations of censoring activists who support an independent Catalonia. Last month, an art exhibit was ordered by Spanish authorities to remove portraits of Catalonia’s jailed separatist leaders who were labeled “political prisoners” by the organizers.
What is Europe's role?
Until last year, Europe's independence movements were arguably a sign of European strength, not discord.
Catalonia's distinct traditions and language had driven independence hopes for decades — but there was also a political rationale behind the desire to break away from Spain. Catalonia has long had a foreign affairs commissioner, and its citizens have emerged as some of the European Union's most loyal supporters. As many as 200,000 people marched in Barcelona last February, urging the Spanish government to accommodate more refugees and meet the E.U. criteria that are being virtually ignored by almost every member state.
Previous demonstrations in favor of independence deliberately included the word “Europe” in their slogans (“Catalonia, a new state in Europe”), and former leader Puigdemont was seen as staunchly pro-European, too.
The lack of support from the E.U. for Catalonia's independence activists has led to frustration, however, and Friday's detention is likely to trigger more disillusionment.
Why did Germany get involved?
As independence activists in Barcelona were anxiously awaiting Puigdemont’s court hearing in Germany on Monday, commentators in Berlin lashed out at local authorities for his detention.
A decision on the extradition could drag on for two months, and any of the possible outcomes will be perceived — by the Spanish government on one hand or pro-independence activists in Catalonia on the other — as politically motivated.
The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper called Puigdemont Germany's “first political prisoner” in an editorial on Sunday. “The detention of Puigdemont wasn’t smart,” the paper commented, arguing that the arrest may unify Catalonia’s embattled secessionist movement and draw the E.U. further into Spain’s domestic crisis.
But some legal experts cautioned that German authorities had little choice on Sunday: Disregarding an arrest warrant issued by an E.U. member state may in itself have been a political statement that authorities were unwilling and unable to make.
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