EUROPEAN Union leaders were determined to stay out of the crisis in Catalonia, hoping against hope that the Spanish government and pro-independence Catalonia leaders would solve their dispute and start behaving like mature Democrats and savvy politicians.
Well, that was wishful thinking.
The Catalan crisis hurtles on at full speed, nobody’s talking to anyone anymore and while they are still trying their best to look away, EU leaders are being increasingly criticised for their hands-off and head-in-the-sand approach.
In the last few days, since the Spanish constitution rules out separation from an indivisible Spain, the country’s conservative Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has dismissed Catalonia’s independence declaration as “null and void”; fired the Catalonia cabinet; dissolved Catalonia’s parliament and called new elections. The Spanish constitution rules out separation from an indivisible Spain.
Meanwhile, the sacked Catalan leader, Carles Puigdemont, has turned up in Brussels, after vanishing from Spain. “I am here in Brussels as the capital of Europe,” he told reporters last week, dismissing suggestions he wanted political asylum. “I am asking for Europe to react.”
But his appeal has been met with resounding silence in Brussels and other EU capitals. Only the Belgian government offered any response. “Mr Puigdemont is in Belgium, neither at the invitation or the initiative of the Belgian government,” said a statement from the prime minister’s office, calling for political dialogue in Spain.
The EU has so far maintained that the stand-off between Spain and Catalonia is an internal affair and has given its full backing to Madrid, supporting its rejection of Catalan independence claims. Madrid clearly has the law and the constitution on its side. Nobody in Europe wants to be seen — at least in public — as sympathetic to the Catalan cause.
European Council President Donald Tusk has spelled out the EU view, saying recently that “Spain remains our only interlocutor”. In the wake of recent violence in Catalonia, Tusk did issue a warning against a repeat of the scenes of police violence. “I hope the Spanish government favours force of argument, not argument of force,” he said.
EU policymakers argue rightly that they lack any legal mechanism to get involved. True, the European Commission has taken legal action against right-wing populist governments in Poland and Hungary over the rule of law. But Spain is a European success story, a country acclaimed for its transition from dictatorship to democracy and with an economy which has bounced back after a tough recession.
There is also concern of course that other pro-independence groups could be encouraged to follow Catalonia’s lead. “I do not want a situation where, tomorrow, the European Union is made up of 95 different states,” said European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. “We already have enough splits and fractures.”
So far, so legal. But what about empathy, advice and perhaps even some discreet mediation between the two sides?
As David Gardner wrote in Financial Times recently, “Statesmen not lawyers are needed to resolve the Catalan crisis.”
A letter to Juncker and Tusk, signed by over 100 academics and politics also points out that while issues of sovereignty are indeed a matter of domestic politics in liberal democracies, “the manner in which the Spanish authorities have been handling the claims to independence…constitutes a violation of the rule of law”.
The letter goes on to criticise Spain’s “repressive actions” against civil servants, MPs, mayors, media, companies and citizens. It denounces the “excessive use of force and violence against peaceful voters and demonstrators”.
“The violation of basic rights and freedoms protected by international and EU law cannot be an internal affair of any government …The silence of the EU and its rejection of inventive mediation is unjustifiable,” the academics insist, warning that without a serious effort of political mediation, the EU risks losing its citizens’ trust and commitment.
The warning is justified. The EU’s role as a passive bystander is looking increasingly ridiculous. And a Europe which is already grappling with the rise of far-right populism and Brexit, certainly cannot afford to lose even more credibility.
The problem is that attempts so far to get the two sides to speak to each other have failed. An attempt to mediate by Inigo Urkullu, the leader of the Basque autonomous government, has been rejected by Madrid. Other discreet efforts to mediate have also proved to be of no avail.
Far from extending an olive branch, the Spanish government is playing tougher and tougher. Spanish prosecutors are seeking a European arrest warrant for Catalans ousted president and has ordered eight members of the deposed government to be remanded in custody pending possible charges of sedition over the declaration of independence.
Europe’s Barcelona blues seem like they are here to stay.