EU still doesn’t know how to deal with Catalonia

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Catalonia’s independence referendum has shown that 90 per cent of voters backs secession from Spain, but Madrid has vowed to ignore the result after Spain’s constitutional court declared the poll unlawful.

Last October riot police occupied polling stations and attacked voters to stop the plebiscite, called by the local Catalan government, from going ahead.

The 90 per cent figure may not reflect the views of everyone in the region because some opponents of independence have stayed away following the declaration that the vote was unlawful.

Similar unofficial referenda to gauge support for independence in the region, including one held in 2014, showed over 80 per cent support for secession.

The position of Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont remains “unclear”, a spokesperson for the body confirmed today.

Clueless Europe

As Catalonia moves to unilaterally declare independence following a referendum last week, the rest of the European Union has found itself stuck on the sidelines, struggling to balance a scenario that has put one group’s demand for democratic rights against the rule of law and Spain’s sovereignty.

Top European leaders are alarmed that Catalonia’s decision to charge towards a declaration of independence, coupled with Madrid’s heavy-handed response and stubbornness, has set the two parties on a collision course with no signs of a good outcome for either of them.

After a long silence, the European Commission reaffirmed the illegality of last year’s vote, while condemning the Spanish government’s use of force, and called all parties to the table for talks.

“We have shaped our democratic societies based on three principles: democracy, respect for the rule of law, and human rights. The three need each other. They cannot exclude each other. You cannot use one against the other. If you remove one pillar then the others will fall too,” Frans Timmermans, the vice president of the European Commission, said during a debate in the European Parliament in October.

“If the law does not give you what you want, you can oppose the law, you can work to change the law,” Timmermans continued, “but you cannot ignore the law.”

Although Brussels sees the issue of independence mostly as a domestic issue for Spain, its balancing act in recent weeks has left both Barcelona and Madrid unhappy. In private however, EU officials point out that critics have been unable to say anything sensible about what the EU could have actually done differently.

Europe’s governments are walking on the same tightrope.

Most of the European senior government officials expressed a real, and growing, sense of worry. And some are sceptical that the “it’s an internal Spanish issue” line will hold if the situation continues to escalate. “It won’t hold especially if PSOE [Spain’s opposition Socialist Party] change their tack as they seem to be doing,” a senior official said.

Spain’s main parties broadly back the constitutional argument, but they differ on how to unlock the stalemate. The fact that Spanish politics isn’t naturally inclined to compromise and coalition-building between the country’s main parties has made things worse.

The current standoff has been a decade in the making. The two sides have upped the ante, and hardened their stances in recent years. In the process, public opinion has become increasingly polarised, partisan, and driven by emotions over facts. Both Puigdemont and Rajoy lead fragile governments, and are vulnerable to the less compromising voices in their respective camps. All this makes any face-saving climbdown extremely difficult to achieve.

On the back of a financial and eurozone crisis that hit Spain harder than most European countries, as well as a succession of corruption scandals linked to his conservative Popular Party (PP), the Spanish prime minister’s stubbornness, his intransigence towards Catalonia, and steadfast refusal to seek a compromise, have fuelled separatist sentiments.

When a new statute of autonomy was approved by previous administrations a decade ago, Rajoy’s PP filed a constitutional appeal that was partly upheld by the courts in 2010. The move angered many in Catalonia.

Support for independence went from 15-20% to reach a peak of 49% in 2013. It has since remained steady at around 40%. Some 1.8 million people voted for independence in an informal consultation in 2014. The following year, a disparate alliance of separatist parties and forces won regional elections with 1.9 million votes on a record high turnout – and pledged to hold a referendum and, if victorious, declare independence unilaterally.

Prime minister Rajoy, meanwhile, is under public opinion and political pressures of his own.

According to data published by the Centro de Investigaciones Sociologicas, the vast majority of Spanish voters want to either keep arrangements between central government and regional autonomies as they currently are (40.5%) or reduce regions’ powers (27%). In some regions, such as Madrid, voters are even more hawkish: 24% want to abolish regional autonomies all together, and a similar proportion want to cut their competencies.