Catalonia's process: an opportunity for the EU

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On 8 April, the Spanish Congress rejected a bill that would have transferred the authority to call a referendum on self-determination to the Catalan regional parliament. Contrary to the constructive attitude of UK Prime Minister David Cameron towards Scotland, the attitude of Spanish political forces continues to be a 'no' to everything.

Unfortunately, Madrid doesn't seem to understand the Catalan desire for freedom and to be able to choose our own path. It is not just a caprice; it is a deep rooted and growing sentiment across Catalan society.

The will of the Catalan people cannot be stopped by a vote in the Spanish Congress or by a threat of expulsion from the EU. Catalan people will continue to act as they always did; in a dignified, positive, constructive, enthusiastic, democratic and peaceful manner as they showed to the world in a massive nonviolent demonstration that took place on 11 September 2013 called "la via Catalana" when 1.6 million citizens held hands over 400 kilometres from the north to the south of Catalonia asking to vote.

On 9 November the Catalan people will vote in a referendum to decide their future. Following the Catalan elections of 2012 (with record participation), 2/3 of the Catalan Parliament decided last December to put a date on holding a referendum on self-determination in Catalonia.

From the radical left to the Christian Democratic Party, the whole ideological spectrum of Catalanism was represented in the agreement. As the Financial Times editorial stated on 27 November 2012, “plebiscite on independence is the demand of the many rather than the dream of the few.

However, in a few months the Catalan referendum will probably be banned by the Spanish Constitutional Court. But that is no surprise. Already in 2010 the highest court ruled against the most relevant parts of the Catalan Charter of Autonomy that had been approved by referendum and with the support of the Spanish and Catalan parliaments. The Court just followed the political diktat of the PP and PSOE, Spain’s main political parties.

It is certainly ironic that while Madrid constantly refers to the rule of law and its strict adherence to the Constitution, Spain holds the record for bad implementation of EU legislation, with hundreds of legal cases pending for illegal state subsidies or non-compliances with European directives.

Up to now, in contrast to the Scottish case where PM Cameron has agreed a process with Alex Salmond that is accepted by both parties in a democratic/civilized way, the Government in Madrid has categorically refused to countenance idea of a referendum, arguing that it is against the Spanish Constitution.

Moreover, the Catalan process is a fully European one: peaceful and democratic. The last event confirming this fact was the massive nonviolent demonstration that took place on the 11 September 2013, when 1.6 million citizens held hands and formed a human chain asking to vote.  This process can only be understood in a European context where physical violence cannot be used as a threat against democratic movements. Up to now, the Commission has remained quite discreet and more or less neutral; however the latest statements by President Barroso are distinctly negative towards what may happen to an independent Catalonia.

On 20 November 2013 the Commission stated: “If part of a country becomes a new independent state it would be dealt with as a separate country and any treaties cease to be applicable”.

However, the EC had given different answers to the same question. For example, on 12 November 2012: “The Commission would express its opinion on the legal consequences under EC law, on request from a Member State detailing a precise scenario.”

So, I wonder why no Member State has asked the Commission for an official opinion? Why does not the Spanish Government request it?

Furthermore, does all this mean that Catalan citizens will be expelled from the EU just because they dare to decide their future through a vote? What message would that send to the outside world?

European policymakers should think twice before doing that, and should remember something: Catalonia is not Turkey. An independent Scotland or Catalonia may have enough time to renegotiate its reinstatement in the EU from within as they would already comply with the Copenhagen criteria. This is the opinion of an Honorary Director General of the European Commission, Graham Avery, in an article published for the British Parliament. A similar view is held by Yves Gounin, French Conseiller d’État. Many Catalans would be happy enough with a process that enables Catalonia to be part of the EU in 4-5 years after independence as the Charlemagne column suggested on 22 February 2014.

Anyway, if Catalonia were to be expelled from the EU, the latter has the explicit right to negotiate agreements by qualified majority in cases concerning participation in the European Economic area (EEA). Thus, Spain does not have the right on its own to veto Catalonia’s efforts to remain in the EEA, an area which is home to 500 million consumers. Catalonia has over 4,000 European multinationals based on its territory: these companies would find it very difficult to understand if Member States decided to expel Catalans from the EEA.

In order to avoid this undesirable situation, the EU should be open-minded and put political pressure on Spain to make Rajoy agree on a negotiated path towards a referendum in Catalonia, as Cameron has done with Scotland.

Europe needs to grasp the Catalan will to self-determination as a measure of its success, as an opportunity to show to the world its strength and its commitment to the basic fundamental values of its Treaties. Permitting Catalans to vote would set a model of best practice and show to the world that the European way to deal with political and territorial conflicts is to have full respect for democracy.


by Ramon Tremosa i Balcells

Main candidate from Convergència Democràtica de Catalunya (CDC) in the next European elections and current Member of the European Parliament.

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