Monday

23rd Sep 2019

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.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Support quality EU news

Get instant access to all articles — and 18 year's of archives. 30 days free trial.

... or join as a group

  • "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.

Interview

Catalan crisis will 'go on for months'

The president of the EU's Committee of the Regions, Karl-Heinz Lambertz, said that both the separatists and Spanish authorities made mistakes.

Germany detains Catalan ex-leader Puigdemont

German authorities may extradite former Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont to Spain where he faces up to 25 years in jail following charges of sedition and rebellion by the Madrid government.

News in Brief

  1. German bank fined for cheating Danish tax system
  2. Supreme Court ruling on Johnson on Tuesday
  3. 10 arrests over possible Catalonia anniversary attacks
  4. 53% of Europeans think LGTBI discrimination is widespread
  5. Doubt cast on new Maltese inquiry into slain reporter
  6. March by Slovak Catholics seeks abortion ban
  7. 600,000 stranded on holiday as Thomas Cook collapses
  8. Egypt: hundreds of protesters arrested over weekend

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.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. UNESDASoft drinks industry co-signs Circular Plastics Alliance Declaration
  2. FEANIEngineers Europe Advisory Group: Building the engineers of the future
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersNew programme studies infectious diseases and antibiotic resistance
  4. UNESDAUNESDA reduces added sugars 11.9% between 2015-2017
  5. International Partnership for Human RightsEU-Uzbekistan Human Rights Dialogue: EU to raise key fundamental rights issues
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersNo evidence that social media are harmful to young people
  7. Nordic Council of MinistersCanada to host the joint Nordic cultural initiative 2021
  8. Vote for the EU Sutainable Energy AwardsCast your vote for your favourite EUSEW Award finalist. You choose the winner of 2019 Citizen’s Award.
  9. Nordic Council of MinistersEducation gets refugees into work
  10. Counter BalanceSign the petition to help reform the EU’s Bank
  11. UNICEFChild rights organisations encourage candidates for EU elections to become Child Rights Champions
  12. UNESDAUNESDA Outlines 2019-2024 Aspirations: Sustainability, Responsibility, Competitiveness

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Counter BalanceRecord citizens’ input to EU bank’s consultation calls on EIB to abandon fossil fuels
  2. International Partnership for Human RightsAnnual EU-Turkmenistan Human Rights Dialogue takes place in Ashgabat
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersNew campaign: spot, capture and share Traces of North
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersLeading Nordic candidates go head-to-head in EU election debate
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersNew Secretary General: Nordic co-operation must benefit everybody
  6. Platform for Peace and JusticeMEP Kati Piri: “Our red line on Turkey has been crossed”
  7. UNICEF2018 deadliest year yet for children in Syria as war enters 9th year
  8. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic commitment to driving global gender equality
  9. International Partnership for Human RightsMeet your defender: Rasul Jafarov leading human rights defender from Azerbaijan
  10. UNICEFUNICEF Hosts MEPs in Jordan Ahead of Brussels Conference on the Future of Syria
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic talks on parental leave at the UN
  12. International Partnership for Human RightsTrial of Chechen prisoner of conscience and human rights activist Oyub Titiev continues.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic food policy inspires India to be a sustainable superpower
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersMilestone for Nordic-Baltic e-ID
  3. Counter BalanceEU bank urged to free itself from fossil fuels and take climate leadership
  4. Intercultural Dialogue PlatformRoundtable: Muslim Heresy and the Politics of Human Rights, Dr. Matthew J. Nelson
  5. Platform for Peace and JusticeTurkey suffering from the lack of the rule of law
  6. UNESDASoft Drinks Europe welcomes Tim Brett as its new president
  7. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic ministers take the lead in combatting climate change
  8. Counter BalanceEuropean Parliament takes incoherent steps on climate in future EU investments
  9. International Partnership For Human RightsKyrgyz authorities have to immediately release human rights defender Azimjon Askarov
  10. Nordic Council of MinistersSeminar on disability and user involvement
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersInternational appetite for Nordic food policies
  12. Nordic Council of MinistersNew Nordic Innovation House in Hong Kong

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us