18th Mar 2019

Ombudsman raps EU institutions on Catalonia

  • EU treaties 'do not foresee any procedure for a potential secession of part of the territory of a member state,' the Ombudsman said (Photo: Helena Spongenberg)

The EU has no procedure for how to deal with a region breaking away from a member state, the EU Ombudsman has said, despite the European Commission usually stating that a breakaway region would have to apply for EU membership.

While hopes of independence have been raised in Catalonia and Scotland over the last few years, with some nationalists eager to leave Spain and the United Kingdom respectively, most still want to stay within the European Union.

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When asked about what will happen if a region wants to secede from a member state, the European Commission has, on several occasions, referred to an answer given by former Commission president Romano Prodi in 2004, and the answer appears to have become the Commission line.

"If a part of a member state ceases to be a part of that state, it will become a third country and may apply to become a member of the EU," Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas reiterated on 17 September.

However, last week, in a letter to five Catalan MEPs, which has been seen by EUobserver, the Ombudsman states that "the treaties of the European Union do not foresee any procedure for a potential secession of part of the territory of a member state."

'Not the official position'

"Therefore, any declaration made by members of the EU institutions in relation to the consequences of a potential declaration of independence by Catalonia would be reflecting their personal view and not the official position of the institution," the letter says.

"The Ombudsman did not issue an opinion about what the EU institutions have been officially saying to date on this matter", the Ombudsman office clarified Monday (19 October) in an email to this website.

"We referred to a complaint the Ombudsman had received about verbal statements made by an EU official," the office wrote.

The European Commission did not want to comment on a letter that was not addressed to it.

The MEPs, Ramon Tremosa, Francesc Gambus, Ernest Maragall, Josep-Maria Terricabras and Ernest Urtasun, requested earlier this month a meeting with the European Ombudsman to ask, among other things, about an answer given by European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, which appeared on the Parliament website in two different versions.

The MEPs, all from Catalonia, belong to the center-right EPP, the liberal ALDE and the Greens/European Free Alliance (autonomists and separatists) groups in the European Parliament.

"We would like to personally express our concern about the recent distortion of a written answer by the European Commission about Catalonia," the MEP's letter said. "Whether we are faced with a case of human error or we are facing another type of interference at the highest level, this fact would be of the greatest concern for all European citizens."

In September, ahead of a regional election in Catalonia, a Spanish MEP had asked Juncker whether or not the Commission would accept a unilateral declaration of independence from Spain despite it being against the Spanish Constitution.

The written answer by Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker was published on the European Parliament website in English and in Spanish.

The English version of Juncker's reply said that it was not for the Commission to enter into internal constitutional affairs of member states, while the Spanish version had an extra 9-line paragraph, saying that a regional parliament cannot decide on the fate of its territory.

The Commission later stated that the English version is the official one and that the extra paragraph in the Spanish version was a "clerical error".


Aidan O'Sullivan, the head of cabinet of European Ombudsman Emily O'Reilly, wrote in the email to the five Catalan MEPs that "there would most likely not be sufficient grounds to open an inquiry into such a complaint."

He argued that exactly because "the treaties of the European Union do not foresee any procedure for a potential secession of part of the territory of a member state,… any declaration made by members of the EU institutions in relation to the consequences of a potential declaration of independence by Catalonia would be reflecting their personal view and not the official position of the institution."

The five MEPs have, in a new letter, insisted for a meeting with O'Reilly to look further into the case.

"Our complaint is not directed at the content of the answers but related to a clear maladministration in the activities of the European Commission when providing two different answers to a single question."

Commission spokeswoman Mina Andreeva refused to comment on Tuesday about "letters that are not addressed to ourselves".

Regarding Juncker's letter, she said that the Commission has "never had the habit of interfering in national constitutional processes or national elections". "We regard the matter as closed," she said at the Commission's daily press briefing.

This article was updated on 20 October at 15.30 to take into account the commission's reaction

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