Monday 23 July 2018

Catalonia's campaign for independence leaves Brussels with a headache that won't go away

Catalan independence supporters wave a 'estelada' ( pro-independence Catalan flag ) at the ANC ( Catalan National Assembly ) headquarters after results of the regional elections in Barcelona. Photo: AP
Catalan independence supporters wave a 'estelada' ( pro-independence Catalan flag ) at the ANC ( Catalan National Assembly ) headquarters after results of the regional elections in Barcelona. Photo: AP

Juliet Samuel in Brussels

The EU was hoping, as with all things, that it could wait it out. Instead, pro-independence parties won a majority of the seats in Catalonia's elections last Thursday.

"The Spanish state has been beaten," declared the region's would-be president, Carlos Puigdemont. This is a bit of an overstatement, but the nightmare has returned. Despite high turnout and a unionist rallying call, the three separatist parties snatched victory, winning 70 of 135 seats. They haven't won a majority of the popular vote - but that didn't stop them before.

Brussels, so far, has managed to stay out of this fight. It is not the EU's fault, though the euro crisis contributed, because it saw the rich Catalonia region sending more cash to Madrid in return for fewer services.

It will, however, become increasingly difficult for Brussels to stay out of it if the election leads to an ongoing confrontation between Catalonia's separatists and Madrid. Mr Puigdemont himself is, embarrassingly, holed up in Brussels to evade arrest, and won't return to Spain unless Madrid promises not to lock him up.

This isn't another Brexit. Whereas the UK is proceeding legally, under the rule of law, Catalonia's separatists trampled the legal order when they held a referendum without a mandate and unsuccessfully declared independence.

That is why Brussels bureaucrats find it impossible to intercede and broker a political outcome. Doing so would reward extra-legal behaviour - a big no-no. But if Catalonia's separatists manage to provoke another harsh Spanish retaliation, staying neutral will look heartless. Any overreaction by Spain easily transfers its bad aura to the EU, especially given that Mr Puigdemont insists he is leading a pro-European movement seeking EU protection. It would be especially awkward if Madrid were to reapply for an EU warrant to arrest him.

The EU is trying to cobble together a consensus to reform its institutions. It didn't need this headache. Unfortunately, it is now relying on Madrid to keep things calm. That's an uncomfortable place to be.

© Telegraph

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