The European Union needs to reexamine its approach to the Catalonia crisis as it is slowly lurching into a new phase. Brussels and member states were right to oppose the illegal and unilateral move by the Catalan government to secede from Spain but this response is just one piece of the EU’s overall strategy. The EU also supported Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy when faced with hardliner tactics, albeit constitutionally justified.
While these actions were the right thing to do, the EU’s support was perceived in Madrid as a blank check to follow whatever course against Catalonia. Brussels also submissively accepted the fact that it had no role as a mediator and it refrained from criticizing the Spanish government in any way. Although Madrid has managed to appease Catalonia’s reckless secessionist drive to some extent, this still does not mean a definitive victory.
Whatever the outcome of December’s election, the actions of the Spanish government could still intensify the hostility and frustrations in the region, deepening the discontent among many Catalans and dragging this tension out for years to come. There is also a belief that while the crisis was in the making, Spain failed to propose a well-worked alternative to the Catalans at least as a forum for positive discussions. While they are right to do so, it is disappointing that no one has put forward an original, balanced and constructive idea for how the crisis may be appeased.
If the EU does not come up with a strategy to handle this serious political crisis, it will be co-responsible for its outcome. Catalonia will test the EU’s identity as a political project and if Brussels fails to ease the tensions, European voters could be prone to lose their faith in the rhetoric about the importance of looking beyond the nation state. If the only thing they see is the EU’s defense of national governments, it will be no surprise to find them looking up to anti-establishment parties. Although Brussels is not going to be a formal mediator, there is clearly a role for the block to play.
At the core of the matter will be how to come up with some form of arrangement for Catalonia that it won’t allow Catalonia to claim independence but that will give the region more autonomy than standard federalism. The EU is based on the principles of shared sovereignty and confederalism, so it would be useful to explore whether these could be used to address the Catalan crisis. Something called an “autonomous member territory” could be an option to grant Catalonia at least a few more rights such as representation and similar capacities that member states have in Brussels.
While it is ultimately up to the Spanish government to resolve the Catalan crisis, the EU should also be actively involved in the complicated and complex process of looking for a favorable outcome. Brussels must, at the very least, help facilitate a broad debate by proposing fresh solutions that go beyond the currently popular focus on constitutional legality.
‘EU Needs a Smarter Response to the Catalonia Crisis’ – Op-Ed by Richard Youngs – Carnegie Europe.
(The Analysis can be downloaded here)