Wednesday

24th Jan 2018

Magazine

How the EU failed to prevent the Catalan 'train crash'

  • "We saw that we were heading for a train crash. But we saw it very late, just a few weeks before the referendum," an EU official admitted to EUobserver. (Photo: Albert SalamÈ/NOTIMEX/dpa)

On 24 January 2017, in a packed auditorium at the European Parliament in Brussels, Carles Puigdemont already announced what was going to happen.

"At the latest in September 2017, Catalonia will hold a binding independence referendum," said the president of Catalonia's regional government - although the vote eventually took place one day after that deadline, on 1 October.

Thank you for reading EUobserver!

Subscribe now for a 30 day free trial.

  1. €150 per year
  2. or €15 per month
  3. Cancel anytime

EUobserver is an independent, not-for-profit news organization that publishes daily news reports, analysis, and investigations from Brussels and the EU member states. We are an indispensable news source for anyone who wants to know what is going on in the EU.

We are mainly funded by advertising and subscription revenues. As advertising revenues are falling fast, we depend on subscription revenues to support our journalism.

For group, corporate or student subscriptions, please contact us. See also our full Terms of Use.

If you already have an account click here to login.

  • "This is a European problem," then-Catalan leader Puigdemont said in January in Brussels. (Photo: Carles Puigdemon/Flickr)

"This is a European problem," he added, laying out his strategy to get EU support in pushing the Spanish government to accept the referendum.

He argued that "the Catalan proposal for a referendum follow[ed] a firmly Europeanist inspiration" and that "Catalonia as a whole is deeply involved in participating in the European project".

"Europe cannot look the other way. Europe should be part of the solution," he said.

Nine months later, on 31 October, Puigdemont was back in Brussels, briefing the press at a smaller venue - the Press Club - which spilled over with more journalists and media than his first appearance.

This time, he comes as a former, dismissed leader - fleeing what he said was "unfair justice" in Spain and calling on the EU to "react".

He insisted that EU inaction - in the face of Madrid's takeover of Catalan institutions after the region declared its independence on 27 October - would be "the end of the idea of Europe", "a mistake that we can all pay, at a very high cost, as European citizens".

Puigdemont appeared again at the Press Club, on 22 December, a day after Catalan voters gave a majority of seats to separatist parties, with his list, Together with Catalonia, the biggest within the separatist camp.


The politician, more relaxed and feeling vindicated, asked for "respect" and "guarantees" to go back to Spain and take office. And he asked the EU to "listen to Catalan people."

While Puigdemont's first appearance was mainly covered by Spanish media and a few outlets in Brussels, the

later two were broadcast live across the EU, such was the crisis.

Heading for a train crash

Europe was finally forced to give its full attention on the region's crisis after images of Catalans being beaten by Spanish police while trying to vote were splashed across European and global media; the local parliament declared Catalonia's independence and the Spanish government took control of the region's institutions.

Puigdemont, along with twelve other members of his dismissed government were charged with rebellion, sedition and embezzlement and faced up to 30 years in prison.

After months of apparent disinterest, Europe was suddenly left contemplating how the crisis could be solved.

"We saw the problem growing politically. We saw that we were heading for a train crash. But we saw it very late, just a few weeks before the referendum," an EU official admitted to EUobserver in November, on condition of anonymity.

Despite Puigdemont's warning in January, EU institutions only started to look closer at Catalonia in early June, when the Catalan leader announced the date for the referendum.

In an interview to a group of journalists, including EUobserver, Puigdemont warned in early July that "nothing" would stop him.

But there was no reaction from Brussels or EU capitals when the separatist coalition, on 5 July, presented the referendum bill, which said that independence would be declared "within two days" if the Yes side won. Or on 6 September when the bill was adopted by the Catalan parliament through an extraordinary procedure.

"We hoped there would be a dialogue, a solution, or that at least the referendum would be legal, as in Scotland," the official added.

Even when it was clear that Madrid and Barcelona would not talk, the EU still rejected calls for mediation, arguing that it was an "internal issue".

The European Commission, to whom calls to intervene were mainly directed, did not want to take a position before member states acted, and insisted it was not within its institutional role.

The Council of the EU, which represents member states, also kept quiet on the crisis.

Taboo for the EU

"If that is not a taboo, it looks like it very much," a source from a member state told EUobserver in September. "All member states are embarrassed."

"There is a very, very strong principle: we don't meddle in domestic politics when it is about the constitutional order," the first EU official pointed out.

When images of police violence in Barcelona on 1 October were broadcast, EU institutions faced an "unexpected" situation, he added. But the principle of non-interference continued to prevail.

"I don't think the EU was not interested [in what was happening]," political scientist Camino Mortera-Martinez told EUobserver. "Both the Spanish and the EU did not think it would go that far. It was unthinkable, even for Madrid."

While the EU, for political and institutional reasons, tried to contain the escalating showdown within Spain's borders, both the Spanish and Catalan governments careered obliviously into the deadlock.

In Madrid, prime minister Mariano Rajoy relied on a constitutional ruling that a referendum would be illegal and refused to discuss its organisation, repeating right up to the 1 October referendum itself that the vote would not take place.

Rajoy is leading a minority government, after two inconclusive elections in 2015, and has been weakened by corruption cases against his centre-right Popular Party. The defence of Spain's unity is a strong element in his party's manifesto.

Reality and fantasy

"The Spanish government was very naive," noted Mortera-Martinez, who works at the Centre for European Reform, a think tank in Brussels. "It thought that it would be enough to say that the referendum would not happen, and that if it happened it would be enough to send the police."

Meanwhile in Barcelona, the Catalan government fell into its own trap and convinced itself that it would have support from the EU.

It organised its communication very well, with unofficial 'embassies' in EU countries and press trips for foreign journalists - including EUobserver.

"They saw that people were eager to listen to them," unlike the Spanish government, Mortera-Martinez said. "They thought that because people were listening to them, they were going to support them."

In the end, "there was a very thin line between reality and fantasy".

"What astonished me the most is that Catalans were disappointed [not to get the support they expected]," the EU official observed. "Even Kosovo, which was supported by the US, the UK, France and Germany" struggled to be recognised when it declared its independence in 2008.

From Puigdemont's January address to the weeks that followed the referendum, and Madrid's takeover of the region's institutions, Catalan separatist leaders based their demands for EU support on what they said were Spain's violations of civil rights and democracy.

"Maybe what is happening with Poland gave them the impression that the European Commission would intervene," the official noted, referring to the rule-of-law monitoring launched by the EU executive in 2016.

Believing Rajoy

So could the EU have avoided the escalation and deadlock?

"I cannot really see what could have been done differently," the official said, insisting on respect for the internal constitutional order of member states.

He noted that "maybe" some member states "could have sent messages" to the Spanish government to suggest dialogue with the Catalan leadership. But national elections in France and Germany probably diverted the attention of EU leaders.

"What EU leaders should have done was to explain to Rajoy that he should not be so closed to a solution," said Mortera-Martinez. But she noted that the Spanish PM's colleagues were also dependent on his view of the situation.

"If Rajoy tells you that nothing will happen, you believe him and think: 'Why bother?'," she said.

This story was originally published in EUobserver's 2017 Europe in Review Magazine.

Click here to access EUobserver's entire magazine collection.

Catalonia's separatists claim victory after violent day

"The citizens of Catalonia have won the right to an independent state," the region's leader, Carles Puigdemont, said at the end of a day marked by Spanish police violence inside and outside polling stations.

Spain 'takes back control' of Catalan government

Three days after Madrid adopted measures to counter Catalonia's unrecognised declaration of independence, the question is whether the Catalan ministers will show up to work and who the civil servants will take orders from.

Feature

Catalonia ponders independence 'leap of faith'

Ahead of a referendum on 1 October, Catalans are almost united on the need to go to the ballot box. But they are divided on the question, and uncertain about the result and the consequences.

Rajoy and Puigdemont in new showdown

The Spanish PM and Catalan separatist leader said they were open to dialogue, but on different grounds, after Thursday's elections in Catalonia gave a majority of seats to the pro-independence parties.

Magazine

Macron: Hegelian hero of EU history?

The election of the 39-year old newcomer injected new hope and dynamism. But the French president still has to find solid allies in the EU and deliver his ambitious agenda at home.

Magazine

In 2018, make Europe great again!

Is the EU back on track to make Europe great again? The fifth edition of EUobserver's Europe in Review magazine looks at the biggest events that shaped the EU in 2017 and prospects for 2018.

Magazine

In 2018, make Europe great again!

Is the EU back on track to make Europe great again? The fifth edition of EUobserver's Europe in Review magazine looks at the biggest events that shaped the EU in 2017 and prospects for 2018.

Magazine

The EU and US in the age of Trump

America's face changed when Donald Trump replaced Barack Obama. But one year on, the foundations of the transatlantic relationship are still intact.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. European Free AlllianceNo Justice From the Spanish Supreme Court Ruling
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Solutions for Sustainable Cities: New Grants Awarded for Branding Projects
  3. Mission of China to the EUTrade Between China, Belt and Road Countries up 15%
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersOresund Inspires Other EU Border Regions to Work Together to Generate Growth
  5. Mission of China to the EUTrade Between China, Belt and Road Countries up 15%
  6. AJC Transatlantic InstituteAJC Calls on EU to Sanction Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, Expel Ambassadors
  7. Dialogue PlatformRoundtable on "Political Islam, Civil Islam and The West" 31 January
  8. ILGA EuropeFreedom of Movement and Same-Sex Couples in Romania – Case Update!
  9. EU2017EEEstonia Completes First EU Presidency, Introduced New Topics to the Agenda
  10. Bio-Based IndustriesLeading the Transition Towards a Post-Petroleum Society
  11. ACCAWelcomes the Start of the New Bulgarian Presidency
  12. Mission of China to the EUPremier Li and President Tusk Stress Importance of Ties at ASEM Summit

Latest News

  1. Lessons for EU from the Greek tragedy
  2. A new dynamic on the Macedonia name issue
  3. Berlusconi in Brussels on pre-election charm offensive
  4. ECJ should rule against Austrian online censorship lawsuit
  5. EU states loosen grip on tax havens
  6. Facebook promises privacy reboot ahead of new EU rules
  7. Europe is lacking tech leadership
  8. Spitzenkandidat system here to stay, MEPs warn capitals

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. EU2017EEVAT on Electronic Commerce: New Rules Adopted
  2. European Jewish CongressChair of EU Parliament Working Group on Antisemitism Condemns Wave of Attacks
  3. Counter BalanceA New Study Challenges the Infrastructure Mega Corridors Agenda
  4. Dialogue PlatformThe Gülen Community: Who to Believe - Politicians or Actions?" by Thomas Michel
  5. Plastics Recyclers Europe65% Plastics Recycling Rate Attainable by 2025 New Study Shows
  6. European Heart NetworkCommissioner Andriukaitis' Address to EHN on the Occasion of Its 25th Anniversary
  7. ACCACFOs Risk Losing Relevance If They Do Not Embrace Technology
  8. UNICEFMake the Digital World Safer for Children & Increase Access for the Most Disadvantaged
  9. European Jewish CongressWelcomes Recognition of Jerusalem as the Capital of Israel and Calls on EU States to Follow Suit
  10. Mission of China to the EUChina and EU Boost Innovation Cooperation Under Horizon 2020
  11. European Gaming & Betting AssociationJuncker’s "Political" Commission Leaves Gambling Reforms to the Court
  12. AJC Transatlantic InstituteAJC Applauds U.S. Recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s Capital City

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. EU2017EEEU Telecom Ministers Reached an Agreement on the 5G Roadmap
  2. European Friends of ArmeniaEU-Armenia Relations in the CEPA Era: What's Next?
  3. Mission of China to the EU16+1 Cooperation Injects New Vigour Into China-EU Ties
  4. EPSUEU Blacklist of Tax Havens Is a Sham
  5. EU2017EERole of Culture in Building Cohesive Societies in Europe
  6. ILGA EuropeCongratulations to Austria - Court Overturns Barriers to Equal Marriage
  7. Centre Maurits CoppietersCelebrating Diversity, Citizenship and the European Project With Fundació Josep Irla
  8. European Healthy Lifestyle AllianceUnderstanding the Social Consequences of Obesity
  9. Union for the MediterraneanMediterranean Countries Commit to Strengthening Women's Role in Region
  10. European Heart NetworkThe Time Is Ripe for Simplified Front-Of-Pack Nutrition Labelling
  11. Counter BalanceNew EU External Investment Plan Risks Sidelining Development Objectives
  12. Dialogue PlatformThe Turkey I No Longer Know