Roger Casale defends Catalonia’s right to seek independence and asks the question – where is the EU voice right when it is needed the most?

The last two weeks has seen a sea of colour on the streets and squares of Barcelona. One day it’s the yellow and red of Catalonia, next the yellow and orange of Spain. Nowhere have we seen the yellow and blue of the EU flag.

A freedom to express

And yet modern Europe is the context in which both Spanish and Catalonian identities reside. If we are building a Europe of Citizens, then why shouldn’t citizens be free to express themselves as Catalonian, Spanish, European or any combination of these identities including all three?
Or to put it another way, what is so “dangerous” about Catalonian identity as to threaten to push Catalonia not just out of Spain but out of the EU as well?

Before the referendum the EU masqueraded as a neutral observer. In fact it was powerless to do anything. It wasn’t impartial. It was impotent.

Silent support

On the eve of the referendum, EU leaders should have spoken to Mariano Rajoy at the EU council in Estonia. He was quietly given leave of absence to attend to matters in Spain so the opportunity was lost. On the day after the referendum, the EU abandoned neutrality and started to take the side of Spain.

Donald Tusk belatedly called for “no further escalation”. But what “further escalation” did he have in mind after 900 European citizens had just been assaulted by the police?

Jean-Claude Juncker gave a sterile defence of the rule of law. Yet the the referendum was an act of peaceful civil disobedience. That is not the same as contempt for the rule of law as civil rights struggles since Gandhi have shown. Angela Merkel “affirmed her backing for “the unity of Spain”. Macron let his Europe Minister, Nathalie Loiseau do the talking. “A declaration of independence by Catalonia would not be recognised”, she said.

Apart from Charles Michel, Prime Minister of Belgium, no one has spoken out against the disproportionate and repugnant actions of the Spanish police.

I don’t have a view on Catalonian separatism. Catalonians appear to be as divided on this issue as they are about their relationship with Spain.

A foundation of freedom, law and human rights

What I do know is that the European Union is built on three pillars, the rule of law, democracy and human rights. And I am a citizen of Europe.

Take away any of these pillars and our common European home will fall down.

Governments must obey the rule of law or face the consequences and the Generalitat de Catalunya is no exception. Equally, European member states do not have a licence to breach human rights in the name of the rule of law (as in Spain) any more than they have a licence to breach human rights (and the rule of law) in the name of democracy (as in Poland and Hungary). Yet the European Union defends the actions of the Spanish government , whilst condemning the governments of Poland and Hungary.

To a committed European citizen like me, this looks like hypocrisy. If I am right, it will fuel division not just in Spain and in Catalonia but in the rest of Europe at a time when the European Union should be working for stability, unity and peace.

From a civil society perspective, the EU’s first duty should be to the citizens of Europe and not to the Governments of the member states. That is why New Europeans sent a monitor to Catalonia for the referendum and why we are continuning to gather evidence and to observe events there on the ground.

We want to understand the situation from the perspective of the squares and the streets of Catalonia, and not just from the perspective of ministerial offices and company boardrooms in Barcleona and Madrid.

We call on the EU to speak up for the human rights of all Catalonians (including those who want Catalonia to remain part of Spain). We say that it is time now for the EU to push for a democratic outcome to the crisis that respects the human rights of all concerned within the law.

Next week, the European Council meets in Brussels. This time Rajoy will be present. A legal referendum on Catalonian independence may prove to be the only way forward. EU leaders should now say so.

Roger Casale
Roger Casale is an award-winning civil rights campaigner, founder and Secretary General of New Europeans and a director of Europe's People's Forum. His experience includes 8 years as a Member of Parliament in the UK, including 3 years as a Parliamentary Private Secretary in the UK Foreign Office. He has lived and worked in the UK, Germany and Italy, speaks four languages and in 2009 was awarded the Commendatore dell'Ordine al Merito della Repubblica Italiana. He blogs for Europa United in a personal capacity.

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    1. Very to the point

    2. The UN / EU Human Right Treaties are meaningless when States that have signed up to them simply refuse to have dialog . How could a Catalan Referendum EVER take place if the Spanish Constitution simply denies folks to Meaningful Representation – a human right . It would appear Rajoy &Co. interpret Spanish Law – People of Spain cannot have a club meeting , works meeting ( Unions?) , tennents meetings blah blah without flouting ‘ The Law says… ‘ .Catalunya is not unique in EU – did Czechoslovakia not divide by peoples opinion and will ?

      1. Yes it’s incredible that the Spanish Government seem to be looking back not forwards in time – we are in the 21st century – someone needs to tell them that! Juncker? I don’t think so – we the citizens of Europe need to say it as you are doing – thanks.

    3. In each of the reports on Catalunya what I believe we do all recognise is the distinctiveness of the region. Spain is not unique, far from it. If we list all EU member states then there will be more where there are potentially such divisions than not, no matter how big or small each country is. If anything, growing confidence and the search for regained identity is probably as much behind this as the political face that is defiant and demanding may make us believe. One problem with that is that because some states have existed in their present form for as long as Catalunya, indeed some have even changed country along the way, even reverted back to the original, there has been a merging and mingling of population. To qualify as a unique country by ethnicity is as close as possible to an absolute impossibility in Europe, so we can exclude that. My origins are Scots, but then whilst identifying with that country I also acknowledge that in my own circle of contacts one Gàidhlig speaker I know is actually Dutch whilst his wife who is a Scot does not speak that language, moreover does not even have a Scots accent. I also have cousins who are generations long Scots to the point that there is no actual record of their ancestor with the German Jewish name. We also have Ian Rankin’s John Rebus in his crime novels, who we have been told had a Polish refugee grandfather, hence the name.
      These examples are by no means exceptions, they are part of the fibre of all nations in the EU. What we share is being European. There is no absolute need for Europe to be made up of large political entities, we do not need to look back that far in history to see European empires made up of kingdoms, princedoms, duchies and even small republics. Political and economic necessity drove them together, wars did the finishing touches, we have the countries we have today. Undoing history is difficult. In the case of Scotland just over 300 years makes the argument for separation untenable for one side and on the other a union never truly loved thus justifying separation. When it comes to a thousand or some years it is far more difficult. Wales tries periodically, never with success really. So, there has to be another way.
      This is where the Spanish government and, at present PM Rajoy, are being stubborn and politically short-sighted. Demands have been made and some promises reciprocated but still what was possible never achieved. That is simply the regional autonomy Catalunya demanded and a fair return of revenues to the Spanish state made available to them. I watched closely over the years, being a pro-independence Scot, as Spain made mistake after mistake with the Basques. Even there they have far to go to avert hostility resuming. Regional autonomy wherein such matters as taxation are local with proportionate contributions made to the host country, rather than paying to them then partial reimbursement, is not an unreasonable proposition. Identity is often everything, actual independence an illusion. Having a flag and a national costume is an outward expression of identity but not political and economic self-dependence. This is where I am critical of the EU stance at present. Increased autonomy within existing member states does not ‘rock the boat’. There is no political process to go through to decide whether they can join or not, no possible island of nonmembership in the middle of the EU. There is no actual reason why a federal Europe should not consist of large states made up of autonomies which may be states, cantons or whatever we choose to call them. In some cases independence is justifiable in others, the majority in fact, real autonomy should suffice. The EU should take that seriously, not stand back and observe, mute in all but (in this case) a few critical comments about excessive use of force. One of the things Europe is and cannot change is that it is a continent on which geopolitical change has been almost constant, so why not encourage it. Support, indeed perhaps encourage, Spain to give real autonomy without giving up Catalunya then give them good reason to fly our European Union flags. It is time to act and speak out, mediate and offer leadership to make our Europe work the way it should.

      1. Thanks Brian – very thoughtful and informative comment – should be a new article in its own right.

        1. Perhaps it should, however my reservation is that a month on only your comment a day after my comment went up shows how little interest there is in developing this kind of discourse. It is not that I expect or demand discourse, simply that somehow or other it has come to be that events have become far more important than the reason for them happening and the consequences, so the kind of detail I was pointing out is treated as superfluous. That is a sad indictment of our understanding of our own human race and how conflict begins.

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