Keith Dunne discusses the scenarios of Catalonian independence and reveals the real outcome of isolation should the state fail to get international recognition. 

The scenes of the Spanish Police The Guardia Civil in Catalonia beating voters and shooting rubber bullets into fellow citizens as they queued outside polling stations were viewed around the world. The images were more akin to something one sees in Africa, not in a modern EU country. On social media many from both the left and right, pro EU and anti EU, nationalists and unionists condemned the actions by the police acting on behalf of the Spanish government, and they were right to do so. Another criticism was of the deafening silence from the E.U. While much of this criticism came from the usual sources, it was not without merit. If what happened in Catalonia happened in any non E.U country the institutions of the EU would be quick to condemn the situation.

However the criticism was not all justified. The E.U does not like to get involved in domestic issues outside its remit and it does not and should not take sides in elections, referenda or constitutional issues. Also the EU has no choice but to back Spain. The EU backs the internal security, sovereignty and constitutional rights of its member states and according to the Lisbon Treaty, article 4.2, states that the EU shall respect the “essential state functions” of its members “including territorial integrity”. So the EU has no mechanism for dealing with regions breaking away or declaring independence and indeed with all the other stuff going on, especially Brexit and the last thing the it needs is to get itself involved it another tricky constitutional divorce.

Reluctance to endorse

Governments and politicians in member states are also unwilling to come out strongly against the Spanish government for a number of reasons. First they simply don’t want to be seen as meddling in another country’s domestic affairs. They have no stake in the outcome of independence and believe in maintaining the status quo. They may also not want to damage relations with the Spanish government. Spain is an important member of the EU and NATO and maintaining good relations is paramount. There is also hope that the situation will solve itself or the independence movement will just fizzle out and be forgotten about which is unlikely.

“Have the Spanish government never read a history book”? was one of the tweets I read on the day of the referendum. Indeed any person with even a basic understanding of European History would conclude that the actions of the Spanish Government were counter productive. Time has proven again and again that you cannot suppress the desire for independence or democracy with violence. It has never worked.  Obvious comparisons have been drawn with 1916 and the push for Irish independence. The 1916 revolution was a failure. The rebels did not have the support of the people of Ireland who for the most part were content being part of the British Empire. However the actions of the British in the wake of the 1916 revolution in executing the Irish rising leaders changed the opinion of members of the general public. The landslide victory of Sinn Fein in the election of 1918 and independence 4 years later proved that.


Indeed I have heard some in Ireland, in light of the parallels between the two situations, call on the Irish government to recognise Catalonian independence. This of course is basically impossible and that opinion does not respect real-politik. The Irish government or any EU government cannot recognise a unilateral declaration of independence by Catalonia or anywhere else in the European Union and it is foolish to think otherwise. As well as undermining the internal integrity of a fellow member state, such a move would spearhead other movements in Italy, France and elsewhere. The Catalonia government must know this. No country, bar maybe Transnistria, would recognise it as a state.

In fact other than some symbolic gesture, it’s hard to see what benefit declaring independence would have. Would they introduce a separate currency, border checks, and effectively leaving the Schengen Zone. What would that do to their tourist industry?. They could withhold taxes but that is likely to see a tit for tat fight break out where Madrid lures trade out of the region, something we have already seen. An independent Catalonia would also be snubbed by the business world. Companies would be unlikely to invest in the region and no other state would have diplomatic relations with the new state either.

So what is the solution?

It may sound trite but really dialogue and a peaceful solution is the only way forward. While there is a role for the EU in the process, the future of Catalonia and Spain really is an issue for them. The obvious solution is to give the regions more autonomy or turn the country into a federation. Evidence seems to show that people are fairly split on the issue of independence. Giving the region more power, particularly on tax issues, could soften the less extreme nationalists. They should however avoid the mistakes of the UK in giving the regions different competencies and creating constitutional anomalies and difficulties. Of course the fact that Spain has a written constitution will avoid these complications. Whatever the outcome one thing is clear, the EU and its member states must stand with Madrid. In reality there is no other choice.

Keith Dunne
Campaigner and activist on European issues. Particular area of interest is in central European politics.

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