How Spain managed to stop Scotland’s meddling in Catalonia

"I do not want, under any circumstances, to meddle in Spain’s business", Ms. Sturgeon said in February to the Spanish Consul in Scotland. The Chief of Staff of Spain’s Foreign Minister, Josep Borrell, perceived Scotland as “the main haven and support system of the catalan secessionists”.

El Gobierno desactivó una visita del Parlamento catalán a Escocia a un mes del 28-A
El Gobierno desactivó una visita del Parlamento catalán a Escocia a un mes del 28-A EP/VP

In October 14th, 2018, the Chief of Staff of Spain’s Foreign Minister, the diplomat Camilo Villarino, summoned Miguel Ángel Vecino in order to give him instructions about his new position as Spain’s Consul in Edinburgh. This post had suddenly turned into a very relevant one for the Spanish Government, due to the connections between Scottish nationalism with the Catalan independence movement.

The meeting took place in El Soportal, a small restaurant in Madrid’s Plaza Mayor, a short distance away from the headquarters of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. During lunch, Villarino did not waste any time beating around the bush. “Scotland is the main haven and support system of the Catalan secessionists”, he said to Mr. Vecino.

According to Mr. Villarino in that meeting, the Foreign Minister, Josep Borrell, was “very interested” in everything that affected Scotland, due to its “unconditional” support to the catalan independence movement. It was in this conversation that the new appointed Consul knew that the Spanish Ambassador in London, Carlos Bastarreche, had not visited the northern region in spite of being more than two years in the British capital.

A few days later, Mr. Vecino met with Jorge Romeu, Mr. Borrell’s advisor regarding Catalonia’s affairs, who maintained the same position as the Chief of Staff of the Ministry. He talked about “curbing and even rooting out the presence of the catalan secessionists out of Scotland” as one of its main duties as the new Consul in Edinburgh. At least that is what Mr. Vecino states in the lawsuit he filed against the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs following its dismissal last June, to which Vozpopulihas gained access through judicial sources.

"Nothing had been done" with Mr. Rajoy

Mr. Romeu admitted that during Mariano Rajoy’s mandate “nothing had been done” when it came to “keep an eye on” the activities of the Catalan independence movement in Scotland. Borrell’s advisor had played a very similar role in Moncloa as the deputy director of the Department of Foreign Affairs of the President, under the supervision of Jorge Moragas.

“I was in Moncloa and Rajoy did not care at all about what the international community thought about Spain. He would only say ‘let them talk, they will eventually get tired of it’. But we cannot continue this way. Borrell believes that fighting nationalist movements is a priority of its foreign policy and Scotland its a key element in his strategy”, Mr. Romeu said.

At the same time that Mr. Vecino was travelling to Edinburgh at the end of November, 2018, Mr. Borrell made some statements from Brussels that were very well received by the First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon. He was asked during a seminar organized by Politico if he would support that an independent Scotland entered in the European Union, to which he replied: “Why not?”. “If Scotland leaves the United Kingdom in accordance with British law and Westminster agrees, why would we oppose?”, Mr Borrell stated. Mr. Borrell immediately came under fire from London. Former Minister for Brexit, David Jones, labelled his comments of “appalling hypocrisy”. Scotland, on the other hand, began to view Pedro Sanchez’s Government under a new light.

If we proceed carefully and we take advantage of these new open doors, in a relatively short amount of time we will be able to win support and sympathy"

The new Consul began to notice this change a few weeks after his arrival to Edinburgh. On December 7th, the Scottish Government celebrated an act dedicated to the Spanish Constitution, in which Mr. Vecino sensed “a change in direction” from the Scottish authorities.

“If we proceed carefully and we take advantage of these new open doors, in a relatively short amount of time we will be able to win support and sympathy. Something that our past inactivity made us lose. Our former passivity has put us in this situation”, Mr. Vecino told Mr. Romeu in an e-mail.

Mr. Vecino was talking about the time his predecessor, Ricardo Martínez, had spent in Edinburgh. In April 2018, a group of Scottish nationalists protested in front of the Spanish consulate against the extradition process of Clara Ponsatí, former Minister of Education of the Catalan Government. Some of them were able to barge inside the building. After that episode, the consulate decided to close its official Twitter account due to the vast amount of criticism and threats it received daily. Mr. Vecino decided to reactivate the account soon after he arrived to Scotland.

Ms. Sturgeon's shift

Borrell's Office asked Mr. Vecino to be as careful as possible with the Scottish Government’s new approach to Spain. “I beg you to be cautious. Scotish nationalists have interests that are not the same as ours. This alleged change in their position might be strategic, and therefore, fragile”, Mr. Villarino stressed to Mr. Vecino in another e-mail.

Mr. Villarino's mail asking for caution with the Scottish authorities.
Mr. Villarino's mail asking for caution with the Scottish authorities.

On February 12th, the day the proceedings against the Catalan independence leaders began, Ms. Sturgeon tweeted the following:

These comments caused some agitation in Madrid, as well as in the Spanish Embassy in London. The Consul admitted in an e-mail that “not a single Head of Government in his right mind” would endorse the statements made by Ms. Sturgeon. However, he pointed out some key elements in order to be considered.

Firstly, the tweet had been sent from Ms. Sturgeon’s SNP’s Twitter account, not from her personal one. Moreover, Scotland’s Foreign Minister, Fiona Hyslop had not retweeted the post of her boss, even though she was “an extremist who had sent very aggressive tweets against Spain” in the past.

First reaction of the consul to Sturgeon's tweet.
First reaction of the consul to Sturgeon's tweet.

The third element was that there had not been any demonstration in front of the consulate this time. Lastly, that very same day, the Consul had received notice to have an appointment with the First Minister of Scotland on the 28th of February.

"We do not trust them"

Borrell’s Chief of Staff responded to the Consul that same afternoon. “This has been noted. And we do not trust them, at all”, to which Mr. Vecino answered that the tweet must had been written by some “brainless person”. He thought it did not fit with the position shown by the Scots so far.

Villarino: "We don't trust them at all".
Villarino: "We don't trust them at all".

It was the first time that Ms. Sturgeon was going to receive in her office a Spanish Consul, since her custom was to summon the Ambassador in London. Before the appointment took place, Mr. Vecino noted in a very extensive telegram  that the only “aggressive” tweet against the Spanish authorities had been the one allegedly written by the First Minister.

In addition, the reports coming from the Scottish press had been “quite aseptic” and mainly focused on the economic effects of Brexit. Also, in the small demonstrations that had took place in Edinburgh and Glasgow “there had not been any Scottish flags” between all the Catalan esteladas.

Report of the consul after the start of the trial in the Supreme Court.
Report of the consul after the start of the trial in the Supreme Court.

“If we compare this with the flood of criticism that took place these past years, it would be like denying reality and not being able to admit that the atmosphere has radically changed”, the Spanish Consul stressed to Mr. Villarino and Mr. Romeu. He also sent that telegram to Jose Maria Fernandez Lopez de Turiso, the ‘right hand’ of the Spanish Ambassador in London.

The "indefensible" tweet of Ms. Sturgeon

Three days after, Mr. Vecino was received by the Head of Scotland’s European Affairs, Frank Lang, who instantly admitted that the tweet published by Ms. Sturgeon was “indefensible”. Also, he told the Spanish representative that the entire Scottish Government, as well as the SNP, had refused to sign the manifesto in support of the imprisoned Catalan leaders.

Sturgeon's "indefensible" tweet.
Sturgeon's "indefensible" tweet.

The rendezvous between the Spanish Consul with the First Minister of Scotland gav way to a three-page report. Ms. Sturgeon thanked that Sanchez’s Government was open to reach an agreement, since nine Catalan leaders were still in prison and she could not take “the images of police violence in Barcelona” out of her head.

“I agree with you, that is in the past. Also, the new Government is proving that it wants dialogue. Sadly, right now there is a Court proceeding taking place where people that I personally know are being judged”, Ms. Sturgeon said to the Spanish Consul. Mr. Vecino then replied that the judicial process had begun before Sanchez had taken office, and that it would be “unthinkable” to intervene.

Ms. Sturgeon then admitted that the situation in Catalonia had been “inherited by Mr. Sanchez, not caused by him” and that the Catalan issue should not interfere in the diplomatic relation between Spain and Scotland. “It is completely alright to differ in some matters. And most importantly, I do not wish to meddle in any kind of way with Span’s business”, she stressed to Mr. Vecino.

It was then when the Spanish Consul insisted to Borrell’s advisors that he was certain that Ms. Sturgeon would soon set aside “her anti-Spanish sentiment” in order to adopt a more neutral one. Also, he stressed that he considered “essential” that Mr. Sánchez, since it would become a reason for Scotland to get closer to Madrid. “I am completely sure that she will start to put aside her support of Catalan independence”, Mr. Vecino concluded. He was right.

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