Exclusion of Latvia’s consul: unprecedented gesture in a democracy, reserved for major conflicts

Spain will take away Xavier Vinyals’ diplomatic credentials for hanging a Catalan secessionist flag on Catalonia’s National Day

Xavier Vinyals, a Catalan who holds the office of Latvia’s honorary consul in Barcelona, will lose his diplomatic status as of October 27, following a decision by the Spanish authorities. Spain has decided to strip him of his exequatur credentials, which allowed him to exercise the office of Latvia’s representative on Spanish soil. This gesture is unprecedented in Spain’s democratic history and it means resorting to a diplomatic instrument that is reserved for major conflict situations and highly exceptional circumstances. In the international arena there was a recent instance when the US government expelled the consul of Venezuela in Miami for allegedly attempting to hack into the websites of the White House and the Pentagon. This gesture of Spain’s Foreign Affairs ministry towards Latvia is very significant on two different levels: firstly, because Madrid had never invoked this power since the end of Franco’s regime —in 1948 the Spanish dictator expelled three British consuls who were based in Zaragoza— and, secondly, because they have chosen to take this step purely for ideological reasons.

Xavier Vinyals has never been coy about his support for independence. He has been the chairman of the Platform for Catalonia’s National Teams since 2003 and was appointed Latvia’s consul in Barcelona on 27 of May 2007, with Madrid’s approval and the King’s signature on his exequatur. In 2013, shortly after the Catalan Way, then Latvian Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis was interviewed by the Catalan News Agency and spoke favourably about formally recognising an independent Catalonia. He also suggested that Spain should “explore ways” to respond to the demands of 1.5 million Catalans who formed a 400 km long human chain across Catalonia, running from north to south. The Catalan Way drew inspiration from the 1989 Baltic Way, which preceded the independence of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania in 1991. Xavier Vinyals took part in the Baltic Way and that is how his bond with Latvia started. Mr Vinyals assured to this newspaper that the day after the interview with the Latvian Prime Minister, Spain’s Foreign Minister José Manuel García-Margallo summoned the Latvian ambassador to Spain at the time and “asked him to replace his consul in Barcelona because of his separatist views”.

In the last three years the Spanish Foreign Affairs ministry has requested this change on a number of occasions, but the Latvian government has always refused to oblige. Still, only a few days after this year’s Catalan National Holiday (September 11), Madrid daily ABC ran a story about how the Latvian consul in Barcelona had hung a separatist flag (“estelada”) outside the consular office in Barcelona’s carrer Iradier on September 11. Mr Vinyals claims that the flag was on his own private residence, which is located on the floor above the consulate itself: “I’ve never used my position to promote any pro-independence movements”, he says.

Faced with Latvia’s repeated refusal, Spain used the news story about the flag to invoke the Vienna Convention —an international treaty that defines a framework for diplomatic relations between independent countries— and revoke Mr Vinyals’ exequatur credentials. This exclusion does not require an explanation of its reasons nor the approval of the country represented by the diplomat involved.

The last time that Spain tried to strip a consul of his credentials was in 1994, but Costa Rica removed him first. Alejo Buxeres had been charged with committing the worst stock market fraud to date in Spain, and Costa Rica forced him to step down a month before his trial began. In contrast, a year ago Fidel Herrera Beltrán became the new Mexican consul in Barcelona, even though Forbes had his name on the list of “Mexico’s ten most corrupt individuals” and he has been accused of ties to drug-trafficking. Mexico’s expat community in Barcelona has publicly requested that his credentials be revoked, but Madrid has paid them no notice and Herrera is still in office.

Waiting for Israel’s consul

In the meantime, Israel has been waiting for nine months to open up its consulate in Barcelona city again and has already picked a representative: lawyer José Antonio Sánchez Molina. Still, Spain’s Foreign Affairs Ministry has yet to approve his exequatur so that he may take up the position. Israel’s embassy sources claim that they are not worried and do not wish read anything into such a delay. Still, diplomatic sources note that Spain is carefully vetting all new consular appointees at the moment.

In recent years the workload of the consuls who are based in Catalonia has spiked because their governments are constantly asking them for reports to monitor the independence process on a day-to-day basis. 2017 looks set to become a key year to win the hearts of international actors and Madrid has already shown its own game during diplomatic contacts: Spain’s pressure to thwart any international support for Catalan independence is now being buttressed by an instrument reserved for disputes between independent countries.