Political dialogue to honour EU’s democratic tradition

Amadeu Altafaj's picture
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In recent years, Scotland and Catalonia have reactivated the debate on independentism and multilevel sovereignty in the EU. While London and Edinburgh showed last year how self-determination claims can be dealt with in a democratic, mutually agreed way, the Catalan case highlights the fragilities of a relatively young democracy which seems chronically unable to tackle some of its most critical challenges and shortcomings.

According to polls ahead of the 27 September local election, which is widely seen as a plebiscite on independence, a majority of Catalans have lost patience and are ready and are ready to support the birth of a new State in Europe. “Impossible under EU law”, some say. “A headache for the EU”, others add.

The Scottish example proved that a comprehensive negotiation process, including arrangements to ensure continuity of membership for the successor State in international treaties and organisations, is possible, and that scenarios of abrupt transition and tensions can be avoided, as they are detrimental to all parties involved.

There is certainly no appetite whatsoever in Brussels and EU capitals to add an independence process to the EU long list of pressing issues on the agenda. But in exchanges I've had with senior officials and diplomats over recent months I have detected increasing concerns about the way Madrid has been handling (or rather not handled!) the Catalan issue. 

As many of them still have fresh memories of the serious threat posed by Spain to financial stability in the euro area –especially between 2010 and 2012–, the last thing they want to see is rising political tensions pushing the country back to instability and affecting their economic interests.

As the 27 September election approaches, the issue of the possible negative EU response to Catalan independence has been pushed again to center stage by those trying to stop the move. The de facto “no-vote” front often quotes the EU treaties and highlight, in particular, its provisions on territorial integrity. In fact, the Treaties do not include provisions for transforming an EU member State into two new ones.

 But they forget - or hide - that the issue is first and foremost political, before being a legal one. And it is an economic and financial issue too: with 7.5 million inhabitants and a GDP that ranks between Finland and Denmark, Catalonia is deeply rooted in EU’s single market and trade flows. Any attempt to exclude it, even for a very short period of time, would be damaging for all parties and against any economic rationale.

From an historical perspective, the way the EU has managed the amazing geopolitical changes in the continent since 1990 supports the case for a negotiated outcome. Political and financial stability inspired the decisions by European leaders, who eventually instructed lawyers and EU mandarins to design the appropriate legal framework, often with a great deal of creativity.

The EU has proved over decades its admirable ability to address the most difficult challenges, to channel tensions and contradictory interests through political dialogue and to accommodate the deals within its legal framework.

As former EC Director General Graham Avery rightly notes, “the implicit policy of the EU in relation to independentism in Europe consists of initial reluctance followed by pragmatic acceptance”.

It is obvious to any observer that no party involved (Catalonia, Spain, the euro area, the EU institutions) has anything to win from an abrupt process that could lead to renewed financial instability and further erosion of EU’s reputation. Unfortunately, instead of engaging in a dialogue, Spain’s central government has persistently barricaded behind the Constitution of 1978 and embarked on a collision course, resorting to the judiciary against any attempt by the Catalan institutions to hold a vote on the political future of the country.

Needless to say, this attitude has further fuelled the frustration of many Catalan citizens and subsequently support to independence.

In this context, it is foreseeable that in the coming months Spain’s partners will gradually increase the pressure on Madrid to open channels of dialogue with the future Catalan Government. But after three decades of constructive engagement in Spanish politics, an increasing number of Catalans today seem determined to pursue a separate political project as a new State in the EU, rather than waiting for a deep transformation of Spain.

From an EU perspective, a mere legal assessment of the matter is of limited use. Political dialogue, with an active involvement of the EU, is the way, ideally leading to an orderly managed, fast-track, “internal” enlargement process under article 49 of the Treaty. That would better serve all parties’ interests, safeguard stability and honour EU’s democratic tradition.


Amadeu Altafaj is the Permanent Representative of the Catalan Government to the European Union. 

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