The European Union has gone out of its way to stay out of the crisis in Catalonia, which came to a head last week when the northeastern region’s parliament voted in favor of declaring independence from Spain—a move rejected by Madrid and left unrecognized by just about everyone else. Since the escalation of the territorial dispute last month, EU leaders have insisted Catalonia’s October 1 independence referendum, and the crisis that has ensued since, is an “internal matter for Spain” and Spain alone.
Unfortunately for the them, however, Catalonia’s ousted leader had other ideas.
In his first formal appearance since Spain’s central government moved to impose direct rule over the Catalan regional government last week, deposed Catalan President Carles Puigdemont delivered an address in Brussels Tuesday in an apparent bid to explain what the Catalan independence movement does next. Flanked by five of his fellow ousted regional lawmakers, Puigdemont announced he would respect the results of the snap elections called by Madrid for December 21, and clarified that while his return to Catalonia would depend on certain “guarantees” of a fair trial from the Spanish government, he would not be seeking to claim asylum in Brussels as some have speculated.
The speculation wasn’t unwarranted. Madrid charged Puigdemont and other members of his government Monday with rebellion, sedition, and misuse of public funds—the first charge alone carries up to a 30-year sentence. The charges, paired with an apparent invitation by Belgian Immigration Minister Theo Francken for the Catalan leader to seek asylum in Brussels and Puigdemont’s recent hiring of a Belgian human-rights lawyer, appeared to suggest he might be intending to pursue independence in exile (this speculation was fueled even further by Puigdemont’s web address, which changed from president.cat to president.exili.edu).
When asked about the rumors during the press conference, however, Puigdemont said he had different reasons for choosing the city. “I am here in Brussels as the capital of Europe,” he said during his trilingual address (delivered in Spanish, Catalan, and French) noting that the crisis in Catalonia “is a European issue, and I want Europe to react.”
It’s not that EU leaders have been disregarding the Catalan issue. In fact, the bloc uniformly dubbed the contested Catalan independence referendum illegal, and defended Spain’s right to uphold the rule of law (though many rejected the Spanish police force’s violent response to the vote). Still, Puigdemont’s appeal to Europe both before and after Catalonia’s formal independence declaration suggests he hopes the EU could have a change of heart. But Susi Dennison, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told me it’s wishful thinking. “This attempt by Puigdemont to kind of force the issue by taking flight to Brussels and making the appeal is kind of a last-ditch attempt to try and get the EU to see this differently,” she said, adding: “It really seems to me that there’s very little the EU can do now that it’s got to the point where the Spanish government has taken back control of Catalonia.”
On its face, Puigdemont’s appeal to the EU as a potential home for Catalonia’s national aspirations seems odd. The bloc has long been envisaged as a beacon of peace and stability across the continent—not a means for championing atavistic and nationalistic aspirations within it. And though Puigedemont framed the Catalan issue Tuesday as one “at the very basis of the values on which Europe is founded,” Richard Youngs, a Madrid-based senior fellow at Carnegie Europe, told me it’s an argument most European leaders are unswayed by, in part because of the precedent it sets.
“If territories around Europe take it upon themselves to declare independence unilaterally, the whole state system in Europe is at risk,” he said, noting that even by making the ask, Catalonia puts the bloc in an awkward position. “The EU as a political project is supposed to be based on the idea that we look beyond the nation-state and the irony, it seems to be, is that the EU ends up defending the nation-state. Now, in the eyes of secessionists around Europe, it seems to be firmly on the side of the nation-state rather than supporting the aspirations of these small, locally-rooted movements.”
In reality, there’s little the EU could actually do for Catalonia. For one, the bloc has no legal mechanism to intervene in a territorial dispute between Madrid and Barcelona. Under Article 4 of the Lisbon Treaty, the EU must respect the “essential state functions” of its member states (like Spain), including “ensuring the territorial integrity of the State, maintaining law and order, and safeguarding national security.” Moreover, with other looming issues such as Brexit and eurozone reform in its path, it’s unlikely the bloc would even want to take on issues where it ultimately has no jurisdiction. “If the EU is to make a significant leap forward, you need France and Germany, but you also need other states like Spain,” Youngs said. “The support for deeper European integration is still very strong among the Spanish people, so I think all that plays into quite generous and loyal support European governments are giving the Spanish government.”
What happens next largely depends on the results of December’s snap elections, which most of the region’s political parties, including Puigdemont’s, have already agreed to participate in. While Puigdemont may be hoping that a result in favor of pro-independence parties will buoy the region’s secessionist aspirations, Madrid is likely banking on the opposite result: that a poor showing for pro-independence parties will mark an end of Catalonia’s secessionist movement altogether. On this, Youngs said, its the Spanish government that’s suffering from wishful thinking.
“A lot can happen between now and the election,” he said. “Even if it does manage to take the oxygen out of the secessionist movement for now and the elections deliver a government that is not in favor of unilateral independence, I still think over the longer term this is not a problem that is going to go away unless the government in Madrid makes some concessions and looks for some kind of political arrangement that offers Catalonia something.”