The Catalan dispute: A new transboundary crisis in Europe?

  • 3
  • October 24, 2017

By Jacint Jordana, IBEI

Over the past few weeks, the Catalan dispute with the Spanish government has attracted international attention. While the non-negotiated referendum on self-determination held in Catalonia on 1 October (1-O), which was forbidden, persecuted and partially blocked by the Spanish executive and judiciary, made the global headlines, this case has been incubating for at least the last five years as tension between these two levels of government in Spain has grown.

This is a very complex territorial dispute that we do not aim to interpret or disentangle here. The dispute has increasingly hardened and we still do not know if it will escalate even further. The conflict has diversified into many battlefields; it involves the legal and constitutional dispute, the political legitimation argument, economic struggles to influence firms to move their location, frenetic foreign policy pressure, and competing journalistic narratives on the logic and justification of the dispute.

This is an extraordinary territorial dispute, an (almost) non-violent war in Europe, that also involves two global cities (Barcelona and Madrid) sharing the same state, where the former perceives there to be a lack of state support to compete globally. The dispute has not ended and currently we are witnessing a peak in political tension between these territories. It is therefore very difficult to predict what will happen after the crisis.

Our purpose here is to discuss whether this conflict can be considered a European transboundary crisis. In addition, we consider the potential implications, in the short and long term, of these developments from a European-wide perspective. First, we should establish the preferences of the Spanish and Catalan actors as to the role of European institutions. On the one side, the Spanish government frames the dispute as an internal territorial issue, one of misbehaviour by a subnational government that has to be addressed according to existing constitutional tools. On the other side, the Catalan government aims to Europeanise the conflict, expecting EU institutions to act as mediators in the dispute between the two levels of government.

We can identify some clear evidence of the involvement of EU institutions during the weeks after the referendum. For example, the European Parliament had a debate on the Catalan referendum a few days after the referendum, on 4 October. Also, some EU Commission officials made declarations about the importance of respecting the constitution, but also asked for dialogue and negotiation between the two sides. Possibly more significant was the direct intervention of the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk. On the same day (10 October) the Catalan President was expected to declare Catalonia’s independence, Tusk declared on Twitter: ‘I appeal to @KRLS not to announce a decision that would make dialogue impossible.’ This apparently deterred the declaration of independence that day. Thus, it is clear that different EU institutions were directly involved during the two weeks after the Catalan referendum, not taking sides, but advising on two main issues: respecting the Spanish constitutional rules, but also starting a dialogue between the two parties.

Many reasons exist for EU institutions to be involved in this politico-territorial crisis, but two are most evident. First, there are the European-wide financial risks this crisis could trigger, considering the heavily indebted Spanish state and the weakness of the Spanish economy. A sudden paralysis in Catalonia could have direct effects in many European economies. Existing connections and interdependencies could attract risk-takers from the entire world to bid against the Spanish treasury. Second, a massive violation of citizen rights in Europe, if it happened, could seriously undermine European soft-power worldwide. This is not a minor issue as European soft-power is the most powerful weapon European countries have. Police attacks on voters, even for a non-legal referendum, are not easy to digest and raises concerns about the ability of European countries to manage their territorial conflicts.

Apparently, the EU’s involvement in dealing with this crisis was quite effective as political tensions de-escalated and independence was not declared. However, since then, the expected dialogue has not materialised. The Catalan and Spanish governments did not establish any form of conversation. There was only a letter from the Spanish government to request the Catalan government’s obedience to Spanish law. This letter prompted a critical reply by the Catalan government, which conceded, however, that independence had not been declared. In any case, it appears that this exchange took more account of the respective electoral constituencies than anything else. At the same time, a request made by the Catalan government to look for a conflict mediator, either appointed by EU institutions or jointly nominated, was rejected out of hand by the Spanish government.

This episode illustrates a more profound disagreement: the Spanish government considers a hierarchical logic in its relationship with Catalonia, derived from the unitary nature of the Spanish state and its administrative culture. In contrast, the Catalan government intends to establish a horizontal relationship with the Spanish government, arguing that sovereignty also emerges from the Catalan parliament and the Catalan citizens, as expressed in the 1–O referendum and previous regional elections. Arguing this, the Catalan government would easily concede that, due to the plebiscite’s unclear procedures, there is always the possibility to convene a new, mutually accepted self-determination referendum. However, the Spanish government is not open to this option, insisting on the subordinate character of Catalan institutions to the Spanish-wide ones.

A new episode of EU involvement occurred during the European Council on 19 and 20 October. This was a turning point regarding the role of EU institutions in dealing with this politico-territorial crisis. Despite several attempts by EU officials to include the Catalan case on the Council agenda, the Spanish government successfully resisted, arguing that this was an internal matter. According to some press reports, a final attempt was made during the Council meeting when Angela Merkel asked Mariano Rajoy if he had anything to say regarding the Catalan case. Rajoy did not answer. After that meeting, some politicians recognised the limits of EU institutions in playing a major role in the conflict when the member state concerned is not interested. Tusk said at the time: ‘All of us have our own emotions, opinions, assessments, but formally speaking there is no space for an EU intervention.’

However, the positions of member states were far from homogeneous. While large and centralist countries like France were the most supportive of Rajoy, some small countries with a history of self-determination struggles, or with highly decentralised structures, sympathised with the Catalan position. In the end, a sort of political realism prevailed and an informal consensus emerged in the sense that any reaction against the Madrid government might create problems for future EU decision-making processes.

Backed by the non-discussion of the Catalan case at the European Council, the Spanish government reacted quickly to prepare its intervention on the Catalan semi-autonomous government, taking over the Catalan key institutions and firing top Catalan government officials, including its president. This was consistent with the hierarchical power logic declared by the Spanish government. It discarded any type of external mediation between the two governments that might have opened up a political dialogue as to the restructuring of territorial politics in Spain or any other possible outcome. To this end, Rajoy accepted a vague promise to reform the Spanish constitution soon, aiming to maximise support among Madrid’s political and economic elites, while ignoring or dividing Catalan ones.

The Catalan crisis is still far from being resolved, or even stabilised. The millions of Catalan citizens that did participate in the referendum cannot be disregarded completely. In other words, the elephant is still in the room. EU institutions have stepped back and have not encouraged any dialogue or mediation, despite their claims immediately after the referendum. Thus, is the Catalan case actually a transboundary European crisis? Despite there being no formal involvement of EU institutions, it is evident that it is a crisis that is debated intensively by the European media, closely scrutinised by European institutions, and that might be having potential economic and social consequences for all European countries.  In fact, it is a crisis Europe cannot evade.

Salient transboundary crises emerge in Europe quite often. Those kind of crises relate to the environment, public health, financial markets or other issues that arise from the interdependencies of integrated and integrating markets, entrenched multi-level public policy and the emerging European citizenship. Whatever is creating a big shock in one corner of the EU might have consequences for the entire Union, either in terms of reputation, public health or material welfare. Multiple mechanisms and institutions have been created at the EU level to cope with transboundary crises of this type and, most importantly, to prevent them in the future. The newly created banking crisis schemes are a case in point.

However, Europe lacks effective mechanisms to cope with political crises, despite the complexities of the emerging European polity. Whether it is a threat to the constitutional division of powers, the presence of a salient territorial dispute, or the restriction on constitutional rights, such dynamics at the member state level are currently dealt with through inter-governmental procedures, basically at the European Council. Member state governments are naturally very reluctant to have other member states meddle in their domestic affairs. The existing procedures, as already illustrated in the case of Poland and Hungary, are very slow, they are very modest in their impact, and, what is much worse, they do not provide credibility-enhancing mechanisms to ensure that democratic institutions work, or that political compromises are respected.

The author of this blog writes in a personal capacity and does not represent the TransCrisis project team as a whole.

One Comment

  • For plausible political reasons, the 1-O referendum on the self-determination of Catalonia was ‘non-negotiated’ with the Spanish state authorities. In my knowledge, before 1-O, the Catalan authorities either cared to know the opinion of the EU leaders about convening the referendum. Should the Catalan authorities did it while confirming the referendum call as a type of ‘fait accomplie’ political act, little doubt their reply was the same in content and manner as the post-referendum reply. Even the external actor playing as crisis manager or mediator, should one take the task in this sui generis conflict, cannot remove this feature out of the negotiating table. This takes me to say that the post-referendum is not a transboundary crisis the EU has to respond to since it is the outcome of intentional and strategic political act, the referendum call. A different theme is the theme of the crises, foreseen and unforeseen, that developed and that will develop from the referendum. The blog highlights the overriding risk of economic crisis. Let aside the liability question of the crises coming out from the referendum on the assumption that it has been called as the best political solution to a long-time existing conflict, it is desirable that crisis research experts and the crisis management units of the EU start developing contingency and response plans to the potential crises coming out from the Catalan referendum since it is the living laboratory of a kind of new normal in Europe today. The crisis potential of autonomy, independence, and secession request is not the concern only of the Spaniards and Catalans!

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