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13 September 2019

An Iberian dawn

Portugal and Spain – 1974-1977

Roger MASSIE

In 1974 the “Carnation Revolution” put an end to half a century of dictatorship in Portugal. Launched by the army and massively supported by the people, this “spring democracy” also swept away, in its passage, the authoritarian regimes in Greece (as early as summer 1974) and then in Spain (the following year). The Council of Europe accompanied the processes of transition to democracy in these three countries, reintegrating Greece (after its exclusion in 1969) and welcoming Portugal and Spain within it, in 1976 and 1977 respectively.
 

The prelude

The term Brexit was only to be coined some 40 years later. But a possible “Strexit” nevertheless accurately describes the staff situation in the summer of 1973, which was marked by an almost wholesale migration from Strasbourg to Brussels. Even the Irish participated in the exodus following that year’s enlargement of the European Economic Community (EEC).

Peter Leuprecht, whom I had known since my student days a decade earlier, was then Head of Division in the Assembly Secretariat. He needed a replacement for Simon Nuttall, one such migrant, and my transfer from Education and Culture resulted. Simon, whose subsequent career in the European Commission would elevate him to be director responsible for China and Japan, did all he could to brief me beforehand, but I was still ill-prepared for the task ahead. Although the two committees for which I found myself responsible were relatively low-profile, the one dealing with European non-member states, which had formerly been called European Captive Nations, turned out to be a challenge that was to occupy me more fully than I could have ever imagined.

Bracing for action: 1973

Willy Brandt was still German Chancellor in those years and was vigorously pursuing détente policy. It was an era when the Helsinki Conference was edging towards adoption of its Final Act, and so the mere renaming or rebranding of the committee fell short, in the opinion of some, of creating an instrument better suited to the needs of the times. But the restrictions on undue activism kept us short-staffed and so many issues related to human rights had to be ignored. Not too much was heard, for example, about the continuing suffering of the Czech people after the brutal extinction of the Prague Spring five years earlier.

Even so, national delegations were tending to designate younger, more open-minded members to the committee. This new generation were able to offset the reactions of “cold warriors” sometimes linked with seemingly “revanchist” bodies like the German Bund der Vertriebenen (Expelled Persons League), and so we soon became known as somewhat controversial. Our chairman, moreover, was the highly respected Swiss liberal conservative, Walther Hofer, a professor of contemporary history, whose address book included a number of émigré dissidents. He was not particularly inclined towards détente but very ready to hold hearings.
The first newly staffed meeting of the committee took place in Munich in September 1973.

There was no mention of Iberia in my predecessor’s handover notes but Portugal was mentioned by left-wing labourite, John Mendelson, during the exchange. In fact, it was the main item on the agenda at the headquarters of the US transmitters, Radio Liberty and Radio Free Europe. Mendelson asked whether programmes were also being beamed into non-democratic Portugal. No, he was told, these radios specialise in targeting the communist world. But by raising the question, he was highlighting an important lacuna. He was also unwittingly taking a serious option on being named first rapporteur on Portugal immediately following the Carnation Revolution – or Captains Coup – on 25 April of the following year. And his task signalled my involvement too and led to my participation in the Assembly’s first fact-finding missions to Portugal and Spain, which began in 1974.

The rocky road to membership

On the very eve of these new developments, an extremely violent event took place. A massive car bomb exploded in Madrid on 20 December 1973, causing the immediate death of General Franco’s Prime Minister, Admiral Carrero Blanco. This assassination hurled Spain into the international limelight. After years of political stagnation and repressive immobilism – towards which the West had turned a blind eye – the Iberian peninsula was again on Europe’s and the world’s agenda.


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Roger MASSIE
Born in India, the son of an English soldier, Roger has made Alsace his home. He worked for the Council of Europe for many years, notably as Secretary of the Political Affairs Committee of the Parliamentary Assembly and then as Deputy Secretary of the Committee of Ministers. He is also active in the Anglican Church, as a lay canon in the Rwandan branch. Since retiring, Roger has been able to develop his keen interest in history and has published several articles on the subject as well as in the military and literary fields.