Westminster Hall Debate: Catalan Independence Referendum

Mark made the following contributions to the Westminster Hall debate on the Catalan Independence Referendum.


The Minister for Asia and the Pacific (Mark Field)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams) on securing this important debate and on all his work as chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on Catalonia. The Minister for Europe and the Americas is travelling on ministerial duties, which I am afraid is why I am responding on behalf of the Government. I am delighted to do so for a number of reasons. I have a holiday home in Majorca, in the Balearic Islands, where some of the issues are also playing out, so I am not entirely unaware of them.​

Hon. Members, in the course of speechettes or interventions, have made several points and there is understandably strong feeling across various shades of opinion about what is happening in Catalonia. It is entirely right and understandable that this place should have a keen interest in Spain, which is after all one of our closest and strongest European friends and allies. As many hon. Members know, we have a significant expatriate population living in Spain, including a significant number in the Catalonian region.

To be clear, while we must defend important principles brought into question by developments in Catalonia, we should remember that Spain is a sovereign nation and that ultimately—as my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) rightly pointed out—the situation in Catalonia is a matter for Spain to resolve, in accordance with Spanish law and democratic principles.

Douglas Chapman

Tonight at 5 o’clock, the Catalan Government will make a statement on how they see their future and whether they are to go for independence or another way. That is a decision for them. Given that to date Spain has been unwilling to talk or to accept mediation, and indeed is still issuing threats to Catalan parliamentarians, how does the Minister think that the British Government will react this evening? What kind of discussions do the Government hope to have with the EU and the Spanish Government, to use our influence in the region to ensure that mediation takes place and that there is a peaceful settlement rather than anyone resorting to the recent levels of violence that were totally unacceptable?

Mark Field

It is important to recognise that this is a fast evolving situation, as everyone has said. Let me confirm, in answer to the direct question from the hon. Member for Arfon, that over the past year the Spanish Government have made no attempt to ask our advice, nor have we solicited to offer any advice, about the conduct of the referendum or anything else. The one thing we can do, as a member of the European Union and as a sovereign nation and friend of Spain, is to make the relevant point that we want to dampen down some of the high spirits and passions that are understandably being experienced on the issue.

In reality, as many will recognise, there is a risk that the Spanish Government will trigger article 155 of the 1978 constitution, to take away elements of Catalonian self-government. At the moment, that would not be a desirable state of affairs, so we all await the events of this evening. There is clear strength of feeling on both sides of the argument, as the hon. Gentleman rightly pointed out.

Jonathan Edwards (Carmarthen East and Dinefwr) (PC)

Will the Minister give way?

Mark Field

I have a set text and am aware of the potential for running out of time, but if I can come back to the hon. Gentleman I will do so.

The Catalan regional Government are meeting today and, as has been pointed out, the possibility of some unilateral declaration of independence hangs in the air, despite the low turnout in last week’s vote and recent broader polling—if one believes opinion polling in politics ​these days—to suggest that a majority of Catalans would oppose independence. The decisions that the Catalan regional authorities take today and their consequences will affect the wellbeing and prosperity of not only all the people they represent, but all those throughout Spain. I hope, therefore, that they will consider very carefully the decisions that they take tonight, and the implications for the future.

As the hon. Member for Arfon rightly pointed out, the debate was initially to be about the effect of the Catalonia referendum on the EU, but events have moved on. President Juncker, in common with many European partners, shares the analysis that Catalonia is an internal matter for Spain. He has made clear the EU’s legal position that Catalonia would have to leave the EU if it became legally independent, which would have consequences for the people of the region, including visitors and businesses, some of whom are already considering their future, given the actions of the Catalan regional Government over the past couple of weeks.

Legal independence, however, is a hypothetical scenario not related to recent events, but where the hon. Gentleman is right—he recognises this—the sensitivities around the issue are profound in many European states, not only here in the UK but throughout Europe. That is one of the many reasons why it is probably sensible to look at the Swiss playing a mediating role, given the temptation for a number of separatist groups to draw a direct parallel with the situation in Catalonia that may not necessarily exist for their own part of Europe.

Geoffrey Clifton-Brown

I know the Minister is running out of time, but may I caution him and anyone else about Swiss mediation, because we would not want them to mediate in the matter of Gibraltar?

Mark Field

That would obviously be an approved mediation in so far as both sides were keen and accepted that that should happen. Otherwise, as I said, it is an internal matter.

We should be clear that the purported referendum held on 1 October was illegal. On 7 September, almost a month before the vote took place, the Spanish constitutional court suspended the legislation calling for a referendum, making it clear that such an act would be illegal. None of the Opposition parties in the Catalan Parliament, which represent 51% of the Catalan electorate, considers that referendum to be valid. The vote was knowingly held in breach of the Spanish constitution and was therefore an attempt to undermine the rule of law. Not only that, it was a breach of the law of Catalonia itself, which is something that has been largely overlooked, but its importance must not be understated. The reason that that must not be understated is that the rule of law is the essential foundation of any democratic society. The issue is not hypothetical but of tremendous importance to the EU and to us all.

Peter Grant

Will the Minister give way?

Mark Field

Forgive me, I will not, because I am running out of time.

The rule of law underpins all the values, rights and freedoms that are fundamental to our way of life. The UK Government feel strongly that it is in the interests of the UK and of the EU to defend that principle ​robustly. Failure to do so would diminish us all. What example would we be setting if we encouraged Governments around the world to embrace the rule of law, but did not uphold or defend it close to home?

For the people of Spain—there is a lot of history in this, as we all know about that country—the 1978 constitution has a particular significance. It was a key moment in the country’s peaceful transition to democracy after decades of dictatorship. The constitution was approved by the whole of Spain, including Catalonia, and it does not permit the Government to authorise the secession of any region of the country. That is the very basis on which the Spanish constitutional court deemed the referendum illegal. When supporters of the referendum speak of the democratic rights of or self-determination for the people of Catalonia, we should remember that the Spanish constitution has protected the rights of Catalans and all Spaniards for several decades in Spain’s modern democracy. Those are the very rights that the Catalan regional Government seek to flout.

I have said that developments in Catalonia are a matter for Spain and Spanish constitutional law and democracy. Nevertheless, it is incumbent on the UK, European partners and like-minded democracies—I accept this—to stand up for the principles on which our own liberty depends. That is why the UK Government will continue to make it clear that we support the rule of law and respect for the Spanish constitution. Failure to do so risks undermining the cornerstone of any functioning democracy and European values.

I very much appreciate the concern expressed by many hon. Members about the actions of the Spanish authorities and the alleged excessive use of force. All of us who watched the television coverage were shocked by the events. No one wants to see violence on the streets. The role of the police is to uphold the rule of law, which must be respected by us all. The Spanish Government have apologised for what took place, which I hope will be helpful in finding a constructive way forward.

Aside from matters of principle, it is important to say that Spain is a great friend and ally of the United Kingdom and a key player in the EU. Its strength and unity matter to all of us. In July this year, Her Majesty the Queen hosted King Felipe and Queen Letizia on the first state visit to the UK by a Spanish monarch in 30 years. That visit was a great success and showed off our deep economic, political, cultural and academic ties.

Democracy is about more than just voting. Every democracy has its own rules, laws and procedures, setting out both rights and responsibilities. The ability of the UK and the EU to promote fair and free societies elsewhere in the world would be significantly affected if we compromised our commitment to those principles here in Europe. This Government continue to support a strong and unified Spain as a key partner for the UK and an influential actor in the EU now and in the future.

Question put and agreed to.