More than a thousand protesters from the self-styled Committee for the Defense of the Republic (CDR), a grassroots pro-Catalan independence protest group, and the anti-capitalist separatist group Arran demonstrated on Sunday in Barcelona against the presence of King Felipe VI at the Mobile World Congress (MWC), a leading trade show hosted in the Catalan capital.
In a high-profile case dating back to 2007, Catalan separatists Enric Stern and Jaume Roura burned a large-format photo of the Spanish king and queen during an anti-monarchy protest in Girona, ahead of a visit to the city by then-King Juan Carlos. They were sentenced by Spain’s High Court (Audiencia Nacional) to pay a €2,700 fine if they wanted to avoid jail for the offense of insulting the Crown. The European Court of Human Rights later found that the decision violated article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights, which defends freedom of expression. The ruling rejected the sanction imposed by the Spanish courts, and also called on Spain to compensate the applicants with the same amount that they paid in fines, as well as €9,000 in total for the pair to cover their legal fees.
The protesters marched toward the National Museum of Catalan Art (MNAC), where the king was scheduled to appear at the MWC opening dinner, carrying signs in support of the separatist leaders on trial at the Supreme Court for their involvement in the illegal independence referendum on October 1, 2017, and the unilateral declaration of independence that was passed a few weeks later in the Catalan regional parliament.
The protesters were stopped by riot police from reaching the venue and returned to their starting point in Plaza España square, burning the Spanish flag, copies of the Spanish Constitution and photos of the king on their way. The pro-independence demonstrators then returned to the MNAC, where they threw paint and objects at the police cordon. Despite the heightened tension, the riot police did not charge at the group.
King Felipe VI at MWC
King Felipe VI, meanwhile, officially opened the leading mobile industry trade show by praising Spain’s democracy, describing it as one of the strongest in the world. “On its own merit, Spain has become one of the 20 fullest democracies [in the world], with international recognition, and in real terms, our democracy has reached the highest level of prosperity and well-being in our entire history,” he said in a speech that combined Spanish, English and Catalan. Spain “enjoys solid institutions and political and economic strength,” the king continued.
The comments came as the Spanish justice system is under increasing scrutiny over the Supreme Court trial, which independence supporters have tried to portray as unfair and politically motivated. Both the Spanish government and the separatists have made diplomatic efforts to win support for their cause abroad. Last week, the king backed the Spanish state against the 12 separatist defendants, arguing at a prize ceremony in Madrid that “it is not possible to appeal to a supposed democracy for being above the law.”
The dinner at the MWC marked the first time that Felipe VI had appeared at the same table as Catalan regional premier Quim Torra, who is a vocal opponent of the monarch and the trial against the 12 separatist leaders. Torra and Barcelona Mayor Ada Colau were intentionally absent from the ceremonial greeting to the king, which is established by protocol. Unlike last year, however, the king was not booed or jeered at when he arrived at the event. Felipe VI has been coming to the MWC since 2006, the first year that it was held here – first as Crown Prince, and since 2015 as the king of Spain.
Spain has become one of the 20 most internationally recognized democracies
King Felipe VI
Speaking in English, Catalan premier Torra called on the audience at the MWC dinner to remember “who opened Mobile World Congress two years ago,” a reference to Carles Puigdemont, the former premier of Catalonia who is in self-imposed exile in Brussels after fleeing the Spanish justice system, which has ordered his arrest over his role in the pro-independence drive. “In Catalonia, we love democracy more than anything,” Torra added.
Torra and his regional government are known for their opposition to the Spanish monarchy. When Torra was sworn in as premier, he made no reference to the Spanish Constitution or the king of Spain during the official ceremony. On Monday at the official launch of MWC, Torra avoided being photographed with the official committee alongside Felipe VI and Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez. The official excuse was that the premier had an “important” meeting with several companies at the trade show.
English version by Melissa Kitson.