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Catalan crisis tests EU’s limits

opinionGuest ColumnistsCatalan crisis tests EU’s limits

The problem for the European Union is that it doesn’t have a Sardar Patel. Deep in the heart of many die-hard European Union bureaucrats is the desire, conscious or not, for the EU to be more like India. They wish it could be a federation, with Brussels at the centre, and the various countries relegated to states within the federation. 

In that way if, for example, Catalonia separated from Spain, it would be like creating a Telangana: tricky, but not fundamentally disruptive.

But, as much as those bureaucrats dream, most of the politicians from the countries that make up the European Union have little desire to give their powers to Brussels. This tension played into Brexit, and is now contributing to the EU’s vague and weak response to the current crisis in Spain. 

It’s worth taking a closer look at the mechanics of the crisis. Catalonia is an area of Spain that is relatively wealthy. It borders Andorra, France and is on the Mediterranean coast. It held an illegal referendum, in which the majority of voters chose independence from Spain. On Friday, the Catalan government declared independence, and the Spanish government moved quickly to use its constitutional powers to take over the running of the state.

Response from the EU has been subdued. President of the EU Council, Donald Tusk tweeted: “For EU nothing changes. Spain remains our only interlocutor. I hope the Spanish government favours force of argument, not argument of force.” 

However, the EU has quietly pointed out that if Catalonia goes independent, it will no longer be a member of the EU. But it hasn’t explicitly said what this means. It hasn’t said Catalonia will have to put in hard borders on its frontiers with Spain, Andorra and France. That the port of Barcelona will need an entirely new set of security procedures and will be outside the customs union. That Catalonia will have to assume some of the Spanish debt and due to the EU. That Catalans will need visas to visit their neighbours. That they will have to get their own currency. That they won’t even have WTO tariffs to fall back on for trade, because they aren’t members of the WTO.

The UK is leaving the EU via Brexit, but it is already an independent country, with its own currency, intelligence service, military, diplomatic corps, etc. A Catalonian exit is exponentially more complex.

An independent Catalonia will have to negotiate from scratch membership in the World Bank, WTO, United Nations, Interpol, etc. All while dealing with a resentful Spain on the other side of the negotiating table. Meanwhile, many other states will also have to play hardball in dealing with Catalonia because of concerns a Catalan success will spur separatist movements in other parts of the EU (Flanders, Lombardy, Basques, etc.) and further afield (Quebec, New Caledonia, Bougainville, even Kashmir).

And, if Catalonia tries to look elsewhere for allies (I am pretty sure China would be more than willing to help the Catalans manage the port of Barcelona), it may find itself even more isolated by its neighbours. 

But the EU isn’t saying any of this. And neither are the Catalan separatists. The debate is largely emotive. And at least one EU member state, Finland, has even said it will debate a motion to support an independent Catalonia in its Parliament.

The Scottish example makes a useful comparison. Before Scotland held its legal independence referendum in 2014 (in which the “stay” side won), the Scottish government spent years systematically examining questions around economics, defence, governance, etc., in an independent Scotland. They even issued a White Paper for further discussion. When people went to vote, they had a fairly good idea of what it all meant. 

This is not the case in Catalonia. And the EU isn’t helping. It is chiding Spain, while at the same time not sending clear messages to the Catalan people about the implications of “independence”. All the threats made to the UK in the lead up to the Brexit vote (and continued now during the Brexit negotiations) should, by the EU’s own logic, also hold true for a Catal(onian) exit. But mostly we are seeing muted press releases and vague tweets saying this is an internal Spanish matter. 

The European Union is facing a very large set of challenges. Underpinning many of them is uncertainty over what it actually is, and where it is heading. The Catalan crisis is testing the limits of how it responds to core issues of sovereignty. It doesn’t have a Sardar Patel, but it isn’t a federation (yet). However, it is still trying to limit the moral power Spain has to keep itself intact. It will be interesting to see if this path leads to more, or less, stability in Europe.

Cleo Paskal is The Sunday Guardian Special Correspondent.

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