Europe Wakes Up to Catalonia

Kristina Kausch
Pol Morillas
4 min read
Photo Credit: Riderfoot / Shutterstock
Since pictures of Spanish policemen beating peaceful citizens flooded TV channels and social networks on October 1, the inner-Spanish dispute over the referendum attempt in Catalonia has become a global concern.

Since pictures of Spanish policemen beating peaceful citizens flooded TV channels and social networks on October 1, the inner-Spanish dispute over the referendum attempt in Catalonia has become a global concern. Over the last few days, nearly every major Spanish news outlet has issued an editorial call for dialogue, and prominent writers, artists, and politicians have signed numerous collective calls urging political forces to the table. Most recently, concerned citizens in Catalonia and beyond have started putting white flags into their windows under the heading “Hablemos/Parlem” (“Let’s talk” in Spanish/Catalan) to induce leaders to end confrontation.

Yet, all those calls continue to hit a brick wall with the main contenders in Madrid and Barcelona. Both Rajoy’s embattered People’s Party and the leader of the Catalan regional government (Generalitat), Carles Puigdemont, are backed by their core constituencies in their hawkish course, and appear to see little incentive for a dialogue without preconditions. But the highly polarized situation may soon run further out of control if Puigdemont declares independence and the Spanish government responds by applying Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution by which the central government is entitled to “apply all means necessary” to enforce compliance of the Catalonian regional authorities with the Constitution. All of a sudden, concern over Spain spiraling out of control is palpable across Europe.

Until very recently, the Catalonia question triggered neither much interest nor concern in European capitals. European diplomats in Madrid are amazed these days that their regular reports on Catalonia — barely even read in foreign ministries back home until last week — are suddenly ripped off their hands. This sudden rush by Europe is justified because the window to act is short. As an enflamed, polarized public discourse rages around a couple of stubborn leaders, it is hard to conceive how de-escalation is to be achieved without political dialogue.

While the Generalitat has long been keen on internationalizing the conflict, the Spanish government has rejected external offers of mediation on a domestic dispute. In Europe, some fear that EU mediation may set an unwanted precedent of direct EU involvement in internal disputes. This could induce other secessionist movements in Europe to provoke their national governments in order to raise the international profile of their cause. Yet, the risks attached to a further escalation in Spain pose a far greater danger to EU stability than the signaling effect highlighted in Brussels. In fact, the precedent argument mirrors the rigid legal argumentation that has helped push Spain into the present crisis.

Despite widespread concern with the excessive use of force displayed on October 1, the Commission’s statement on October 2 reflects the consensus in European capitals that the referendum was illegal and that Rajoy acted within the framework of the Spanish constitution. Warning that “violence can never be an instrument in politics,” it called upon the parties to “move very swiftly from confrontation to dialogue.” Reiterating the domestic nature of the conflict, the Commission has ruled out a formal involvement. But a “call for dialogue” is not good enough. The situation in Spain is too inflamed and too serious to be satisfied with such lame formulas. What the EU plans to do if those calls remain unheard remains wide open.

Even short of a formal mediator role, the Commission could lead on the creation of a task force with the immediate purpose of de-escalating tensions and fostering dialogue, paving the way for eventual talks on future legal arrangements. Importantly, the composition of such a dialogue task force would involve not only the Spanish and regional Catalan government representatives, but balance a range of players with the capacity and influence to foster a peaceful political solution. The Mayors of Barcelona and Madrid could be involved, as could members of the European Parliament, and well-respected personalities from European civil society. The task force proposal, suggested in La Vanguardia on October 5, has already been picked up by Barcelona Mayor Ada Colau.

Referring to the Cyprus talks, European Commission President Juncker said in January 2017, “When it is about peace, you have to take the plane. And I do think that it is the duty of the President of the European Commission to be there and to try to bridge the points of view of the two parties involved. It is risky, but when … it is about peace, those who are taking no risks are taking the greater risk.” As Ivan Krastev has noted, great political projects never disintegrate from the periphery but from crisis within. The EU must now throw in all its weight to bring both sides to the table, calm the waters, and enable compromise. The current spiral of hawkishness, nurtured by both sides, is leading to explosion. European leaders must help prevent that with all means available.

Kristina Kausch is a senior resident fellow at The German Marshall Fund of the United States. Follow her on Twitter @kristinakausch.

Pol Morillas is a research fellow in European Affairs at CIDOB. Follow him on Twitter @polmorillas.