Saturday

6th Mar 2021

Opinion

Catalonia crisis tears at fabric of EU

Many in EU circles have dealt with their shock at the situation in Catalonia by accepting that it is worrying - but only an internal Spanish matter, after all.

In reality, one can hardly conceive of a more direct challenge to the very fabric of the Union.

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  • A pro-unity demonstration in Spain, in the week following Catalonia's disputed referendum on independence. (Photo: Elentir/Flickr)

The EU is a political organisation that does not rely on coercion; it is a legal construction. The Union is based on the rule of law, on solidarity, mutual trust and loyal cooperation between member states and the Union, on the idea that we are better off united in diversity than fighting about what makes us different, and on the aspiration of an ever-closer union among the peoples of Europe.

The developments in Catalonia are a radical, direct and immediate threat against everything the EU stands for.

They are based on the idea that the law can be bypassed, on the rejection of solidarity, on distrust, on mutual misunderstanding, on a narrative of confrontation, on the feeling that people and nations are different – some being better than others - and need be acknowledged as such, and on the aspiration of erecting borders where they never existed.

Appeals to the EU by advocates of independence are, in this context, little more than an alibi to emphasise the alleged irrelevance of states as intermediate political structures.

Unsurprisingly, the more radical forces behind the Catalan independence movement openly campaign in favour of breaking up the Union.

Failing to care

As a Spaniard with no sympathy for any sort of nationalism, I am sad about the situation, worried about the future, frustrated by our historic inability to do anything else but postpone the problem, failing to understand that concessions and patchwork solutions in the form of greater autonomy – particularly in education - would not appease but propel the feelings that now seem impermeable to empathy with the other.

Something else was needed. Spanish citizens have only realised now, all too late, that we failed to care about and to understand the Catalan problem. For too long we chose to look elsewhere, to hope that the situation would resolve itself, to not get into too much trouble, to let the problem solve itself. Look where that brought us.

As an EU citizen and a determined believer in the EU project and what it stands for, I am also saddened and worried at the reaction – public or private - of fellow Europeans, who tend to regard the situation with indolent puzzlement, and who are ready to succumb to the comfortable simplicity of an isolated image, the nice-sounding catchphrase, equidistance and even, sadly, to old prejudices that one would have thought long gone.

That is precisely the same mistake that most Spaniards made earlier on. We did not care enough because it was uncomfortable. Don't do that now.

Neutrality is not an option

Sometimes neutrality is not an option. The strength of the EU project lies not in force, nor in historical myths. It derives solely from reason, from its values and from the knowledge and the painful, if fading, memory that if we fail to stand for those, then we have nothing.

The use of public institutions, funds and police forces to challenge the constitutional system of a member state is certainly an EU problem. It is defiance of the highest magnitude propelled by problems that are far from alien to the EU, reviving nationalism and populism fuelled by the economic crisis and by misinformation networks that risk exposing citizens only to the reverberating echoes of their own thoughts and guts.

There is no legitimacy in the fait accompli, nor a mandate deriving from a vote that did not seek to verify the will of the majority, but to impose a will (and life-changing legal consequences) on a majority.

Respecting the rule of law and our core values against such threats, be it in a part of Spain, in Poland, Hungary or in any other member state is neither a frivolous whim nor a formalistic obsession. It is not something we get to play with, nor does it admit concessions. It is the very prerequisite for integration in the Union, for our coexistence and our progress.

The chaotic unilateral declaration of independence we witnessed this week is wrong not just because it is illegal in a democratic society, nor because it is endorsed by just a one seat majority in the Catalan Parliament and is contrary to the apparent will of the majority of the Catalan people, but because it embodies everything that the EU project ever stood against.

It sacrifices our peaceful coexistence, trashes every value we hold dear and creates an alarming precedent that could encourage the fragmentation of member states and, ultimately, of the Union itself.

The price to be paid by Catalan citizens losing the rights derived from membership, and the price to be paid by Spain, pale in comparison to the threat to the EU, which lacks the history, the force - and only has reason and mutual trust on its side.

Dialogue within the law

To be sure, standing firm for the rule of law does not imply advocating for the preservation of the status quo at all costs or neglecting the political wishes of hundreds of thousands of Catalan citizens.

Laws are not immovable, they are the reflection of a consensus at a given point in time, and the friction between the law and reality is often a necessary catalyst for progress. In a true democratic society there can be no goodwill or good-faith dialogue outside of the law, and no one should be misled to believe the opposite.

Within the law, on the contrary, everything is possible. Unlike the values underpinning them, laws are flexible and in democratic societies they should always be open to change. There is no reason to be afraid of operating a constitutional reform and to ask citizens to renew, under very different circumstances, the political and civic compromise with the values and the rules that bind us together. But this is not how change is triggered.

Ultimately, the fate of any political entity, be it Catalonia, Spain or the EU, is to remain incomplete as challenges continue to arise, their success depending on their ability to offer a space of trust, solidarity and wellbeing.

For all their flaws, there are few stories of success in history such as the ones offered by the EU and Spain in recent decades. Rising from the ashes of the wars, they now rank among most open, advanced, pluralist, tolerant, developed and decentralised political systems in history, where the need for union to face global challenges coexists with the recognition of a degree of autonomy of its constituent elements unknown anywhere else in the world.

Spain and Catalonia need each other and they need the EU as much as the EU needs them.

A tumultuous last year has reminded us of one lesson that is as valuable as hard to learn and retain: nothing can be taken for granted.

If we fail to stand for the rule of law, equality, solidarity, respect and integration; if we fail to protect the wise restraints that make us free, then we will have nothing.

Alfonso Lamadrid de Pablo is a Brussels-based lawyer specialized in EU Law and editor of the legal blog Chillin'Competition.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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