Brussels’ curious lack of intervention in Catalonia, and what has been perceived by many Catalans as apathy, can likely be attributed to their fear of the hunger for secession spreading to other European nations. First Scotland. Now Catalonia. What next? EU officials must be thinking. The Flemish? The Normans? The Bavarians?
Apathy is pragmatic. Politicians are apathetic when a situation is uncertain, and with Puigdemont having turned himself in to the authorities last week, facing charges of rebellion and sedition, and Rajoy deciding to invoke Article 155, Catalonia is undeniably in a state of uncertainty.
Many of those in favour of independence have expressed their fury towards the EU for not encouraging Madrid to negotiate a settlement with the Catalan leaders and uphold Spain’s democratic values. Yet really, who can blame them? Fragmentation is the Europeans Union’s worst nightmare. With Brexit looming, widespread disquiet about Eurocratic power politics and a wave of far-right radicalism sweeping over Europe, it is hardly surprising that the EU does not want to do anything which may aid Catalonia’s struggle for independence.
It is clear to the world that Madrid’s decision to use police force in Catalonia to prevent citizens from casting their votes on October 1 was wholly counterproductive; it exacerbated the tension which already existed and deepened hostility towards centralisation. Some Catalan activists even described the action the Spanish Government took as state ‘repression’ that carries echoes of the Franco era.
At this point, Juncker probably had his heads in his hands — it was the worst thing Rajoy could have done in that situation. His bleating that the referendum was unconstitutional and illegal did nothing to curb the international backlash. The rest of Europe was outraged; most people simply couldn’t understand why Rajoy wouldn’t just grant the Catalans a referendum through changing the constitution. Given that polls in the summer showed that only 35 per cent of Catalans were in favour of independence, it does seem quite baffling.
And still, the EU did nothing. They refused to condemn it, refused to condone it, claiming the fall-out to be an ‘internal matter’. What the backlash likely did was fuel the independence campaigns across the rest of Europe. Madrid’s reaction and Puigdemont’s response that ‘the red line that separates authoritarian and repressive regimes had been crossed’ stoked fears of arbitrary government and centralisation. Of course, this is precisely what the EU do not want, because they are concerned that it could lead to other regions in the EU desiring independence.
It was Spanish Socialist politician Joesp Borrell who first warned of the ‘domino effect’ and the EU’s show of apathy suggests he may be right. Borrell, who has suggested that this is:
‘the biggest European constitutional crisis since the fall of the Berlin Wall. For the first time since then we are talking about changing borders. There could be a domino effect’.
The EU’s attitude certainly seems to reflect this, with a prominent EU lawmaker claiming that Catalan independence is in fact a greater threat to the EU than Brexit.
There is certainly an element of truth in Borrell’s words. Are Scotland and Catalonia a prelude to something much bigger and potentially more threatening to European cohesion? If the EU are fearing their own future stability, perhaps we should be too.