The Catalan referendum held on 1 October created a lot of thorny ramifications that threaten the integrity of Spain, one of the countries of the European Union (EU) that, having been hit by the recent economic crisis, is finally managing to get back on its feet.
The president of Catalonia, Mr Carles Puigdemont, wants to declare the region an independent state based on cultural, historic, political, and linguistic differentiations. Moreover, Catalonia had reluctantly shouldered the burden of the economic crisis that recently hit Spain, in conjunction with its political implications. This situation is clearly illustrated by the fact that Catalonia had become the autonomous Spanish community with the highest debt—€13.476 million—since the beginning of the 2008 financial crisis; however, hopefully for the community, it is returning to prosperity, with the economy recovering quickly and showing a 3.3% GDP growth in 2015. Catalonia is Spain’s undisputed industrial powerhouse, especially due to its commercial harbours and its trading capacity making it the wealthiest region in Spain. The power wielded by the region played an important role in the regional president invoking the verdict of the citizens’ majority (which, by the way, is a flawed argument) for the independence of Catalonia.
But the reasons do not stop there. The political conflict between the central government of Spain—dominated by Mariano Rajoy’s conservative People’s party—and the regional government of Catalonia—headed by Carles Puigdemont of the “Together for Yes” party and backed by the “Popular Unity Candidacy” (CUP)—creates many issues between Madrid and Barcelona. Fear of the Catalan economy being once more derailed has led Catalonian nationalists to advocate a unilateral declaration of the province’s independence. The Spanish central government’s initial reaction was generally based on law and constitutional order, although Rajoy eventually made use of police forces to block the access of Catalans to the ballots, widening the gap between the two sides even more.
Given the presence of numerous minorities or special interests groups in many EU countries, this crisis is really crucial and could trigger a domino effect. In order to avoid the rise of other secessionist movements in Europe, a diplomatic solution needs to be found with the contribution of the EU. On the one hand, the European Union needs to totally respect the law it ratified in Article 4, paragraph 2 of the 2009 Lisbon Treaty, which states: “The Union … shall respect their [the States] essential State functions, including ensuring the territorial integrity of the State, maintaining law and order and safeguarding national security”. This article clearly states that the EU should not and may not legally intervene in the internal national issues of its Member States. On the other hand, the European Union’s Fundamental Rights Charter clearly sanctions the “prohibition of torture and inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” (Article 4), making the Spanish police forces’ actions unlawful and condemnable, especially when it comes to the exercise of the quintessential democratic right of voting.
The situation in Spain as well as the future function of the EU can be determined by two main scenarios.
Scenario No1: Mr Carles Puigdemont ignores the judgment of the Spanish constitutional court and forges ahead with the referendum outcome (even though the turnout was only 43% and thus its result is flawed as supporters of the Spanish unity were advised not vote at all), unilaterally declaring the total independence of Catalonia.
In this case, there are 2 sub-scenarios:
- Spain does nothing to prevent Catalonia from seceding. The shock for the EU would be even deeper than the one caused by Brexit, but it would still need to help make this secession as smooth and as least costly as possible. And of course, the EU should go over the Copenhagen criteria for Catalonian EU membership, should the region wish to apply for it, something which at the moment is—hopefully—not in question. Politically, minorities in other EU Member States could be announcing independence referendums and thus European integrity would be fragmented. Economically, Spain would lose the large amount of income that Catalonia currently brings to the country and thus financial support from the EU would be necessary once more, at a time when the EU is investing in a wide range of sectors (i.e., humanitarian aid, counter terrorism, cyber security, etc.).
- Mr Mariano Rajoy implements Article 155 of the 1978 Spanish Constitution, allowing the police forces to step in and take control of Catalonia (or, as the Constitution states: any “autonomous region” that “does not fulfil the obligations imposed upon it by the Constitution or other law, or acts in a way that is seriously prejudicial to the general interest of Spain”). This could lead to a huge escalation of tensions in the country.
Scenario No2: with the political and fast-track mediation of the EU, the two sides agree on clarified mutually beneficial terms. For example, a second referendum, held under the necessary conditions of law and order, could give both sides a realistic indication of the citizens’ will. Alternatively, the solution from the EU could be dynamic, meaning that it could trigger Articles 2 and 7 of the Treaty of the European Union, which apply to those Member States that do not abide by the prerequisites of “stable institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and respect for and protection of minorities”. So, should Spain appear to undermine its citizens’ will in any way, then the European Commission could examine a possible infringement procedure.
In any case, what is important for the EU to keep in mind is what Mr Alfonso Valero, principal lecturer for the College of Business Law & Social Sciences in Nottingham Law School at Nottingham Trent University said: “Allowing disintegration of a country would only increase nationalism elsewhere, forgetting that Europe has historically been ravaged by nationalism”.
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