Spain: From EU poster child to problem child

PUBLISHED: 12:00 11 October 2017

Pro-Catalonian independence demonstrators march in Barcelona. Photo: Marco Panzetti/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Pro-Catalonian independence demonstrators march in Barcelona. Photo: Marco Panzetti/NurPhoto via Getty Images

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The Catalonian crisis has put Europe, as well as Spain, in jeopardy, says PAUL KNOTT.

The EU has been getting itself back on track recently after a series of crises. That comeback could be derailed again by the dramatic events in Catalonia.

The Spanish government’s attempt to block the referendum on Catalan independence by force creates a huge dilemma for the EU.

So far, the EU has stuck to the line that a territory seceding from a member state must do so in accordance with the law and constitution of the country concerned. By proceeding in defiance of the Spanish constitution and court decisions, the Catalan referendum failed to satisfy this interpretation of the EU’s rules. Consequently, if Catalonia declared independence from Spain, the EU would deem it to have left the EU and Euro too. Senior officials such as European Parliament President Antonio Tajani have also added that an application for re-entry to the Union by Catalonia could be vetoed by any member state – a veto it can be assumed Spain would exercise.

The Spanish police’s violence in Catalonia on October 1 should jolt the EU out of its legalistic comfort zone. Rules are important but so are political realities and sometimes they collide. This point has been made previously by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. When talking about possible Scottish independence post-Brexit, Juncker said “the right of a people to self-determination is not only a legal notion. It is political too.”

The developments in Catalonia create a clash between the EU’s rules and its core values of freedom, democracy and non-violence. Whatever the legal arguments, the images of policeman in riot gear breaking windows at polling stations, snatching ballot boxes and beating up voters of all ages changed matters. This new political context is not one an organisation based on democracy and human rights can easily ignore.

Even before last Sunday, there were already, behind the scenes, misgivings across Europe about the Spanish government’s repressive approach to the referendum. But the concern inhibiting many leaders from speaking up is that Spain is not the only country with distinctive regions that could become restless.

Amongst others, Belgium has long contended with powerful political forces in Flanders urging a split, France faces an occasionally violent campaign by Corsican separatists and Italy’s right-wing Lega Nord has featured in governing coalitions after campaigning on a platform of independence for the country’s more affluent northern regions.

European governments fear that acquiescing to Catalonian independence could set an irrefutable precedent for other regions to break away. This would cause immense political upheaval in the countries affected and chaos across the entire EU by undermining the delicate balance of member states upon which it is constructed.

It would necessitate a wholesale reworking of budget contributions and payments from EU programmes, EU Parliamentary seat distribution and the composition of the European Commission. This would far exceed the disruption already being caused by Brexit.

That these events are taking place in Spain is an even greater challenge for the EU. Unlike Brexit, they are not happening in a country that has often been an awkward or unenthusiastic member state. Spain is a poster child for the transformative capacity of the EU. The pulling power of EU (and NATO) membership was hugely influential in Spain’s remarkable peaceful transition from General Franco’s dictatorship to a flourishing democracy. And EU funding played a major part in transforming this previously economically under-developed country.

Perhaps most importantly of all, the founding purpose of the EU was to provide a framework for integration that would enable disputes between countries to be solved peacefully, rather than through the kind of violent conflict that had been Europe’s tragic historical norm. Failing to deal with a dispute between two nations that are part of the same member state, let alone separate ones, would damage the EU’s credibility.

Whilst it is understandably reluctant to wade into the mire, the EU’s best step now would be to recall this founding purpose. The Madrid and Catalonian governments need an external broker to help them down from their escalating stand-off.

Indeed, Catalan president Carles Puigdemont has openly called for outside intervention, although Madrid would argue that this is part of his strategy of internationalising the issue and indirectly achieving recognition, rather than allowing the dispute to remain Spain’s internal affair, as the EU has previously decreed.

Whilst the EU has not previously been perceived as neutral, having sided with the Spanish government’s legal stance, it could present itself as such now. Its rulebook may still favour Madrid but the Spanish police’s attacks on Catalan voters were an assault on the EU’s values.

Delicate backroom diplomacy could still settle this dispute by brokering a renegotiation of Catalonia’s previous autonomy arrangements. It would be in the EU’s own interests to step in before the dynamic both sides have unleashed spirals out of control.

  • Paul Knott is a writer and former diplomat.

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