Brussels between Madrid and Barcelona?

If a year is remembered by the crisis which the European Union (EU) has confronted, then it is certain that year of 2017 will be marked by the unilateral declaration of independence of the Spanish region of Catalonia on October 27th,[1] causing a turmoil in the constitutional order of Spain. In light of its possible and unpredictable consequences, this event could be compared with Brexit in 2016, that is, the UK’s decision to leave the Union, which brought the Union’s survival into question, or with a refugee crisis from 2015, which has been accompanied by a steady rise in Euroscepticism and an increased number of terrorist attacks.

Therefore, bearing in mind the importance of this topic, this text analyses the EU’s reach in addressing the internal issues of its member states, or to be more precise, the possibility of having Brussels mediating between Madrid and Barcelona, which is what the Catalan side has called for. In accordance with the principle of conferral, as defined in Article 5 of the Lisbon Treaty, the Union is allowed to act only within the limits of the competences conferred upon in by the member states in the Treaties. With that in mind, the possibility of mediation in case of a dispute over territorial integrity within its borders does not find its place among the explicitly stated competences of the Union. Therefore, after analysing the legal framework of the EU, it is concluded that the Union does not in fact possess the ability to intervene in the Catalan crisis, at least not formally. Nevertheless, it is added that the Union retains a chance to exert indirect pressure on Madrid to establish some kind of a dialogue by thinking and acting creatively.

The Catalan Crisis as Another Challenge for the EU

On the day of the unilateral proclamation of Catalan independence, Spain, referring to Article 155.1 of its 1978 Constitution,[2] assumed for the first time in its modern democratic history direct control over one of its regions, at the same time removing the secessionist government of Catalonia from power, thus triggering the most turbulent period in Spain since the unsuccessful coup in 1981, or even since the death of its former dictator Francisco Franco in 1975, when the Spanish transition to democracy had begun. This event has been preceded by aggravation of relations between Madrid and Barcelona throughout the past years, ​resulting in a referendum on Catalonia’s independence on October 1st. On the day of the referendum, a clash occurred between police and citizens, leaving nearly 900 people injured, thus attracting the attention of the wider international public and illustrating the gravity of the situation. Considering the fact that Spain is one of the largest EU members, this predicament has once again put into question the stability of the Union, together with its ability to successfully resolve disputes within its borders.

Although during the course of this crisis, that is, at the end of October, the EU summit was held (a European Council meeting), the Catalan issue has not found its place on the agenda of the leaders of European countries, which can be interpreted as an attempt to minimize the problem. In addition, it was only tackled at the margins of this event. For instance, it was briefly mentioned during dinner and at a press conference after the meeting. Nevertheless, the summit served as an opportunity for leaders of the member states to openly stand behind the Spanish Prime Minister Marian Rajoy. Among the aforementioned leaders, the most notable were the French President Emanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, as well as the representatives of EU institutions – European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Council Donald Tusk and President of the European Parliament Antonio Tajani.[3] Even when it comes to public appeals which were pointing to the excessive use of force by Spanish police on the referendum day in Catalonia, the EU leaders have largely left the impression of restraint,[4] allowing them to avoid increasing the legitimacy of the secessionist claims, thus clearly indicating that the Catalan crisis will not change their relations with Spain in any way.

Mediation as an EU foreign policy tool

As a project based on the idea of peace, the EU has been well familiar with the concept of conflict prevention and mediation, albeit beyond its borders. Since 2009, when the Lisbon Treaty entered into force, the EU strengthened its role and capacities to support conflict prevention and peace processes abroad, primarily through the engagement of the then newly established European External Action Service (EEAS). In the same year, the Council of the EU adopted a document defining the concept of mediation as “a way of assisting negotiations between conflict parties and transforming conflicts with the support of an acceptable third party”, primarily in order to prevent or terminate a conflict. This document is based on the 2003 European Security Strategy (ESS), which provides a conceptual framework for the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) and the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP), which means that the notion of mediation is exclusively linked to external action of the EU, thus leaving no room for its implementation in disputes taking place within the borders of the EU, which further confirms the fact that the European Commission has no room for action in the Catalan crisis.[5]

Observing the EU’s legal framework, it is worthwhile noting the particular importance of Article 4.2 of the Lisbon Treaty, which states that the EU is to respect “essential State functions, including ensuring the territorial integrity of the State, maintaining law and order and safeguarding national security,” adding that the issue of national security remains in the exclusive jurisdiction of each member state. Keeping in mind that the case of Catalonia’s separation from Spain is a matter of territorial integrity, the aforementioned article limits the potential activity of the EU in this field and clearly determines the Union’s relationship towards the member states. Therefore, from a formal or legal stand point, the EU does not in fact wield the power to initiate an official mediation process between Madrid and Barcelona despite numerous calls to do so, as the issue of territorial integrity is found exclusively in the hands of its member states.

EU’s Intermediary Reach with Regard to the Internal Affairs of its Member States

Just before the declaration of independence took place, the then President of Catalonia, Carles Puigdemont, had publicly called the EU to act, demanding its involvement in dialogue facilitation between Madrid and Barcelona, in order to assist reaching a compromise and peaceful solution between the two conflicting sides. From Brussels, this request was openly supported by the political group of the European Parliament “Greens – European Free Alliance” (Greens / EFA), which had invited the European Commission to initiate a dialogue between the two sides. However, in line with the previously described legal restrictions, the European Commission has demonstrated its taciturnity, by openly refusing to interfere in the internal affairs of Spain.

In light of this, the advocates of EU mediation between Madrid and Barcelona have repeatedly referred to the case of Northern Ireland as an example of the EU’s successful engagement in resolving the conflict situation within its borders.[6] This refers to a bloody period named “the Troubles”, during which around 3500 had been killed; it begun back in the 1960s and ended with the Good Friday Agreement (Belfast Agreement) in 1998.[7] Nevertheless, it should be emphasized that the EU has not taken part in this process in the capacity of an official mediator between the conflicting parties, as is currently required in Catalonia; rather, the EU’s engagement was of a limited scope, primarily by focusing its efforts on providing solid economic development programs to the Northern Ireland. Therefore, although the action of the EU was aimed at ending the conflict, its influence was primarily economic and not political in nature.[8] Given that Catalonia is the richest region in Spain, it is evident that the EU would not be in a position to re-use the above-mentioned economic tactics, thus making the Catalan crisis an uncharted territory for the EU.

Are the EU’s Hands really tied over Catalonia?

Taking into account that the EU has no way of interfering in the crisis, at least legally speaking, the question arises as to whether and to what extent this fact truly ties the EU’s hands and limits its field of potential activity in this crisis. Speaking in a hypothetical sense, Jean-Claude Juncker has clearly and repeatedly stated that a potential mediation by the European Commission would be possible only if both sides of the conflict requested it. So far, Madrid has firmly refused the possibility of engaging in a dialogue with Barcelona,[9] with or without the Union’s intermediation, citing foremost Article 2 of its 1978 Constitution, which defines the principle of the “indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation”, hence, not granting the right to self-determination to its regions. Considering the uncompromising position of Madrid on this issue, it remains to be concluded that the previously described scenario does not belong in the realm of reality.

Furthermore, it is clear that the European Commission has no interest, even if not bounded by the Treaties, to get involved in the Catalan crisis as a mediator, as according to Junker, it would create additional “chaos” in Europe. In other words, the EU knows well that its management of this issue will ex-ante affect the way in which it will have to deal with other cases of this type in the future. Therefore, it seems that the EU legitimately fears that its potential mediation between Madrid and Barcelona would open Pandora’s box of secessionism in Europe[10] and unintentionally encourage other secessionist regions to seek mediation between them and the central authorities. Consequently, this would pave the way for the Union which it would not be willing to follow in the future. The regions with secessionist tendencies within the EU are, among other, the Spanish Basque Country, Belgian Flanders, French Corsica and the Italian Veneto and Lombardy. In this regard, it becomes clear why neither the EU officials, nor the leaders of the member states have the motivation to support the Catalan claims.

During this crisis, Spain has been accused of using excessive force,[11] which involved actions ranging from street violence to the arrest of 14 Catalan officials and recalling of 700 mayors from Catalonia for interrogation. If the Union’s goal is to tackle the issue of secessionism in Europe, the question arises whether this means that it should keep itself on the side-lines in the case of Catalonia and what consequences will its turning a blind eye to the previously described events have on its international image and on values ​​it stands for. So far, the European Commission has publicly spurred the dialogue between Madrid and Barcelona (without implying any of its role in it), but the impression remains that its commitment has been feeble, or perhaps even insincere.

Despite the fact that there is a tiny chance (or maybe none) that the EU will change its current position on Catalonia, it nevertheless has some options at its disposal which could help solving this problem. On the one hand, the leaders of the member states who enjoy the trust of the current authorities in Madrid could, in agreement with the leaders of European institutions, intensify informal pressures on Madrid to enter into talks with Barcelona. On the other hand, the Union could encourage the creation of a broad platform that would include the participation of relevant stakeholders, which could represent their local communities, or domestic and international non-governmental organizations. Some experts have already proposed to the Commission the creation of a special task force that would be in charge of this type of work. In case of its creative activity, as was the case with the Northern Ireland, the EU could find an alternative way to provide financial or technical support for this platform, without overstepping its legal framework.

The new chapter of this unique case begins on December 21st, when the regional elections in Catalonia will be held. Even though the elections were originally called by Spanish Prime Minister Rajoy as a response to the declaration of independence, the former Prime Minister of Catalonia Puigdemont has nevertheless decided to take part in them and has even promised to respect the election results.[12] Depending on the outcome of these elections, it will be shown whether the situation in Catalonia has “cooled down” or tranquilised as the time passed or whether the passions have actually remained intensive and at a high level, which could respectively diminish or increase the need for a dialogue between the two parties in the upcoming period.

[1] Although 90% of the voters voted in favour of Catalonia’s independence in a referendum, only 43% of the total number of citizens went to polls.

[2] Article 155.1 of the Spanish Constitution has been described by the expert public as the “nuclear option”. Its full text: “If an Autonomous Community does not fulfil the obligations imposed upon it by the Constitution or other laws, or acts in a way seriously prejudicing the general interests of Spain, the Government, after lodging a complaint with the President of the Autonomous Community and failing to receive satisfaction therefore, may, following approval granted by an absolute majority of the Senate, take the measures necessary in order to compel the latter forcibly to meet said obligations, or in order to protect the above-mentioned general interests.”

[3] It is worthwhile knowing that Juncker, Tusk and Tajani are all members of the European People’s Party (EPP), alongside the Spanish PM Rajoy , which points to their common ideological position.

[4] Prime Minister of Belgium, Charles Michel, is registered as a notable exception to the common position of the EU, who openly called for dialogue and political de-escalation in Spain, causing harsh reaction of Madrid.

[5] A good example of the Union’s external mediation is the ongoing dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina, organised under the auspices of the EEAS, with direct involvement of the High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy. As such, it has been in place since 2011 and represents the basis for the further process of the European integration of Serbia and Kosovo *.

[6] The United Kingdom (UK) and the Republic of Ireland became members of the EU in 1973.

[7] It regulated the relationship between the Republicans (Catholic) and the Unionists (Protestant) from the Northern Ireland; the Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and the UK and the Republic of Ireland, leaving the possibility to the people of Northern Ireland in the future to express their wish for reunification with the Republic of Ireland.

[8] The EU has shown a great deal of creativity in this case, by offering substantial economic funds to the impoverished Northern Ireland, using its policy of “conditioning“, though which it tried to incentivise the establishment of co-operation between authorities, organizations, firms and political actors on both sides of the conflict in return for its funds.

[9] After the independence referendum, the leader of the Socialist Workers’ Party of Spain (PSOE), the main opposition party in Spain, Pedro Sánchez, criticized Prime Minister Rajoy for using excessive force, believing that the dialogue with Barcelona was the key to resolving the crisis, thus illustrating the fact there was no unique and solid position of Spain’s political party setting. However, on the day of the declaration of independence of Catalonia, the PSOE nevertheless decided to stand firmly with the institutions of Spain.

[10] A number of analysts emphasize that the Union’s member states (23 out of 28) have already done so by recognizing the unilateral independence of Kosovo *.

[11] The UN warned of the disproportionate use of force by the Spanish police on October 1st, on the day of the referendum, and the High Commissioner for Human Rights urged Spain to accept without further delay requests by relevant UN experts to visit and to examine the situation on the ground.

[12] He has launched his election campaign from Brussels, where he has been in exile since October.