Catalan Referendum Puts EU in Tough Spot By Joshua Turner
This past week has seen one of the European Union’s most populous countries thrown into turmoil as Catalonia, an autonomous region in the northeastern part of Spain, held a referendum declaring themselves independent. Catalonia accounts for around 20 percent of Spain’s GDP and 16 percent of its population. Were Catalonia to be granted independence and join the EU, as they hope, their €216 economy would put them ahead of many current EU member states.
The Spanish government response was harsh, declaring the referendum illegal, violently cracking down on protestors and voters, and cancelling a session of the regional parliament. Catalonian authorities declared that 2.2 million votes were cast and that 90 percent of those were in favor of the referendum. At the same time, at least half of the Catalonian population did not vote.
Catalonia may formally declare independence in the coming days, ignoring the cancellation of their parliamentary session, something the Spanish government has said would be unconstitutional and would lead to an immediate end to the devolution of powers to the region. King Felipe has also chastised Catalonia for its “unacceptable disloyalty.”
The relationship between Scotland and the United Kingdom could be a helpful comparison in understanding the relationship between Catalonia and Spain. The British government devolved power to a Scottish parliament in an effort to stave off attempts at independence. This enabled Scotland to make governing decisions that most intimately affect them. This did not stop Scotland from trying to leave the Kingdom, which resulted in a relatively close referendum on independence that was rejected by a majority of Scotts. The main difference with the Catalonian situation is that Scotland’s referendum was held with the support of the British government.
All of this puts the European Union in a very difficult situation. They cannot realistically support Catalonian independence for it would put them at odds with an important member state. Such a decision would also open up the door for other regions, such as the eastern section of Ukraine, to attempt their own referendums for independence.
Spain’s crackdown was not welcome in Brussels; however, as a European nation engaged in tactics the EU would have likely criticized if done by an outside government. While the EU must handle the situation delicately, they cannot afford to be seen looking the other way if Spain continues its current course.
With Brexit deliberations intensifying, and a continent roiled by right wing insurgencies, the EU must walk a tightrope between supporting Spain and engaging in oppressive tactics. There is not much time for reflection with the Catalan President Carles Puigdemont calling for a declaration of independence by the beginning of next week at the latest, there is not much time for reflection. Just hours ago the Spanish government apologized to the injured. This could be helpful step forward in a very complicated situation.
Joshua Turner is a Masters of International Relations candidate at American University and editor of The Hitch.