Politics in Europe are alive; Catalonia is the latest example. The financial crisis was the axiomatic moment in contemporary European politics fermenting domestic crises throughout and within the Union, occassionally bursting ever since. These crises have equally affected all EU Member States leading to the rise of nationalist forces (notably in France, the Netherlands, Austria, Germany, the UK, Poland, Czech Republic and so forth) shaping the national political rhetorics and policy-agenda.
The latest crisis is undeniably Sunday’s referendum in Catalonia, which exposes an absolute dilemma and threatens the integrity of Spain, one of the largest EU Member States and Eurozone members. In a European Union composed of 28 sovereign states wherein domestic politics remain in the realm of the sovereign states (unless under a policy-area of a European competence), one core commonality remains binding democratic values and principles. Catalonia is one of these cases wherein state sovereignty and regional call for self-dertmination meet and clash.
The Catalan Nightmare
The crisis in Catalonia has changed gear, and potentially seen a shift in legitimacy from Madrid to Barcelona, with the reprehensible response by the Mariano Rajoy’s government on October 1 ensuing the unilateral Catalan referendum. Prime Minister Rajoy had the law on his side as the Spanish constitutional courts have ruled on several occasions on the illegality of a referendum on the independence of Catalonia. But “Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has transformed” argued Frederiga Bindi “what would have otherwise been a unilateral, unconstitutional, and useless referendum into a major victory for the separatists.”
The legal baseline is Spain 1978’s constitution, which stipulates that Spain cannot be broken up as “the indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation” and “the common and indivisible homeland of all Spaniards.” Only the Spanish Parliament can changed the constitution.
Catalonia is a critical piece of Spain, which is the 14th largest world economy and the 4th largest in the EU (post-Brexit). Catalonia counts about 16 percent of Spain overall population Catalonia is one of the richest regions of Spain contributing almost 20 percent of the Spanish economy. One of the arguments in favor of the independence is the lack of proportionality between Catalan contributions to the overall budget and the return. From the 20 percent of contribution, Catalan residents receive 14 percent back for public expenses. Economically, Spain may certainly face serious internal trouble if Catalonia were to secede.
Without going back to 16th century Spanish history, Catalonia has always considered itself unique and separate from Spain with its own history, language, culture and therefore nation. In contemporary Spanish history, 90 percent of Catalonia supported the 1978 constitution. But the separatist movement and feeling have always remained underneath. The recent financial crisis, shifting into the Eurozone crisis, leading to the near collapse of the PIIGS country counted Spain in the mix contributed to exacerbate the tensions between Madrid and Catalonia. Adding to the financial crisis, Spain’s constitutional court struck down parts of the new statue of autonomy for Catalonia in 2010. Since then, Madrid did not reach several opportunities in order to continue talks with the region.
Prior Sunday’s violence, polls were always consistent in proving that only 40-45 percent of Catalans have been in favour of independence. 2013 was the year with a peak in the support level at 49 percent. Prior the announced referendum on October 1, a majority of Catalans were in a difficult position between Catalan authorities to hold the referendum on independence and the strong-hold position by Madrid.
Mariano Rajoy of Spain called on the separatist leaders, behind Carles Puigdemont, President of the Generalitat of Catalonia, to stop the “disobedience” and the “escalation of radicalism.” In a rare televised speech on the evening of October 3, the King Felipe VI of Spain condemned the actions by the separatists framing them as illegal and infringing the legal structure of Spain. “They have tried to break the unity of Spain and national sovereignty” he went on to claim. Ensuing the banned referendum, Catalonia has announced that it will move forward and declare independence from Spain in the near future (after a parliamentary session on Monday). Legally, if a declaration of independence were to be made, the central government of Spain could suspend Catalan autonomy under Article 155 of the 1978 Constitution. Such option would bring the country in a major constitutional and political crisis.
And, the European project?
Where does the European Union fit in this complex political puzzle? The EU is indirectly the cause and the remedy. But it is as well, rightfully so, a reluctant actor. In the case of the Catalan crisis, the EU and its set of institutions have remained as distant as possible from this domestic crisis. For the EU, this is not only bad news, but a sign of major internal forces at play within Member States. “Separation and secession within a member state is very bad news for a block” argued Stephen Beard of Marketplace “that is striving to hold itself together and is currently doing its utmost to punish Britain for daring to break away from the EU.”
The Treaties of the EU are clear regarding the competencies of States and the EU. For instance, Article 4.2 of the TEU stipulates that, It [the Union] shall respect their essential State functions, including ensuring the territorial integrity of the State, maintaining law and order and safeguarding national security. In particular, national security remains the sole responsibility of each Member State.
Ensuing the use of force by Madrid on Sunday in Catalonia, the EU called out and condemned government violence against citizens. On October 2, the Commission released an official statement underlining the illegality of the referendum under Spanish law. Without directly targeting PM Rajoy, the Commission ended the statement by claiming that “Violence can never be an instrument in politics.” However, Spain may be one of the largest and Western EU Member State, the Commission must be as critical as it has been in Poland and Czech Republic. “It is the kind of violence the European Union” writes Steven Erlanger of the New York Times, “would ordinarily condemn in high moral terms and even consider punishing.”
On Wednesday, the Commission called for an open dialogue between the Catalan authorities and the Spanish government. Frans Timmermans, the Commission’s deputy head told before the European Parliament that “it’s time to talk.” Timmermans still maintained the official position of the Commission endorsing the legal position of Spanish Prime Minister Rajoy. During the European Parliament’s session, two leading MEPs, Bavarian Manfred Weber and Flemish Guy Verhofstadt emphasized on the fact “strong regional identity and autonomy did not mean breaking up existing nation states.” What is certain is that “if Catalonia were to leave Spain,” underlined Jonas Parello-Plesner of the Hudson Institute, “it would also leave the EU, only to start a cumbersome reentry process.”
EU Member States, all sovereign states, are not usually in favor of secessionist movements, especially within the Union. In the current context of the Brexit negotiation, the EU and the 27 Member States are quite reticent to see a region of a Member State calling for self-determination and seeking independence. “Throughout my life,” wrote Javier Solana, a former Spanish minister, former NATO Secretary General, and the first EU High Representative, prior the Sunday violence, “I have witnessed the fragmentation of many countries, and I cannot conceive of that happening in the European Union of today.” Despite the reprehensible past action and poor tactic by PM Rajoy, it is difficult at this time to foresee any support from the 27 European capitals for Catalonia’s independence.
Lastly, the Catalonia case brings home a reality, which seems to have been forgotten in one of the richest regions of the world: history tells us that states will use force to maintain their integrity and unity. In his address to the nation, King Felipe VI, “Today Catalan society is fractured and in conflict,” he said. “They (the Catalan leaders) have infringed the system of legally approved rules with their decisions, showing an unacceptable disloyalty towards the powers of the state.” The message is direct, the state shall remain and fight any types of fragmentation.
For decades, Europeans have watched separatist efforts in Iraq-Turkey (Kurdistan), Sudan (South and North), Serbia (Kosovo), Chechnya (Russia), Nepal (China) with a certain distance condemning state violence and believing in some sort of European exceptionalism, that it would not happen here inside the Union. Well Spain demonstrated a forgotten reality.
“As it forms the basis for an experience of freedom, the history of democracy,” Pierre Rosanvallon, Professor at the Collège de France noted, “is therefore not simply a history of frustrations or betrayed utopias: it has become a deeply intertwined history of disenchantment and indeterminacy.” The Catalan case opens the European Pandora box of a forgotten past forcing European citizens and leaders to reflect on the questions thought buried under the rumbles of World War two, but briefly emerging since with the reunification of Germany and the wars in the Balkans, of identity, democracy, power, oppression, nation-state, region-state and cohesion. The fraught between Madrid and Catalonia is serious and could have considerable ripple effects if a thoughtful and open dialogue is soon implemented.
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