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The Great Disappointment: Catalonia, Non-Independence, And The Future Of The European Union

12/10/2017 12:18

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This was Carles Puigdemont's moment, the culmination of his political career and the Catalan independence mandate which he asked for, and for which he and his supporters defied the bullying of the Spanish state on October 1st.

Puigdemont's speech on October 10th was a non-announcement. The watching world expected to see either a triumphal declaration of Catalonian independence, or a sober climb-down in order to leverage more power from Madrid. But his tensely-anticipated speech was a disappointment for all sides. In a long-winded talk peppered with sanctimonious claims that Catalonia alone had elevated Spain from a backwards dictatorship into a modern, prosperous democracy, and that historically the Spanish people have given nothing to the Catalonian people but hardship and oppression, Puigdemont's speech was an antagonistic damp squib which failed to give any indication of what he actually intends. Did he or did he not actually declare independence? Puigdemont appealed to the international community to recognise Catalonia as a sovereign republic, and he did sign a physical document declaring independence. But he didn't say the magical words, and gave only vague implications that independence will be delayed.

This non-speech satisfied nobody. Indeed Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy managed to score a point against Carles Puigdemont the next morning, by publicly asking whether or not Catalonia has actually declared independence. This is a humiliating start. But of greater concern is the elephant in the Catalan parliament chamber - Europe.

Europe has been silent about Catalonia so far, and with the exception of occasional weak condemnations of violence, the EU has treated Catalonian independence as an internal matter. This reveals something of a double standard by the EU. After the EU's public comments on the 2016 Brexit referendum and its aftermath, and its unconditional condemnation of the 2014 Crimean independence referendum and subsequent entry into the Russian Federation, Europe's quiet avoidance of the Catalan question reveals a European Union that is fearful of separatist and ethnic nationalist movements within Europe. The hour-long delay of Puigdemont's speech, caused by a last-minute meeting with the President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker, gives a probable clue as to why Puigdemont failed to declare or deny independence.

The European Union fears Catalonian independence. Not because of a possible domino effect in other states - separatist movements in Corsica, Bavaria, and the Basque region are far less motivated than the Catalans, and with the UK leaving the EU no European leader is concerned about Scottish independence - but because of three almost-guaranteed consequences of Catalonian independence.

First, Catalonian independence sets a precedent for dissatisfied Europeans elsewhere. A symbolic victory for local, ethnic nationalism over integrationist, European internationalism, goes against the founding principles of the European Union. As Ines Arrimadas, spokesperson for the anti-independence Citizens' Party, said in her immediate response to Puigdemont's non-declaration, Catalan independence represents "el peor nacionalismo que hay en Europa"; the worst nationalism in Europe. In a continent still facing rising Euroscepticism and lack of trust in centralised institutions and political elites, a victory for regionalism over internationalism sets a precedent for eurosceptic parties in dissatisfied nations - especially debt-burdened Mediterranean nations who have borne the brunt of EU austerity and the Migration Crisis - to hijack Catalan independence and turn it into a rallying-point against the EU's internationalism.

Second, Catalonian independence could easily trigger a eurozone crisis. Spain has record levels of debt, and the financial relationship between Spain and the EU has been tense since the beginning of the Great Recession. If the slowly recovering Spanish economy suddenly loses its most profitable region, and perhaps accrues the high debts of that region, the Spanish economy will tumble. The consequence of a Spanish financial crisis - which could quickly spread to similarly debt-laden, weakened economies in Greece, Ireland, and an Italy preparing for its own fraught election - could be disastrous. And unlike the Greek financial crisis, this time there will be no bailouts from Berlin.

Third, an independent Catalonia will immediately be removed from the EU. There is no doubt that this is what Juncker told Puigdemont before his speech. Brexit is complicated because it is the first instance of a country leaving the EU. But at least it is made manageable as Brexit was the result of a legal referendum whose results were (mostly) respected by the various factions, even reluctantly, and because the same country which joined the EEC in 1973 will leave the EU in 2019, as a single entity. Catalonia would be the first time that a new country has emerged within an EU member-state, and it would be immediately excluded. Catalonia would leave, even though it never joined. The legal and constitutional problems this would create, however, would be insignificant next to the immediate political and economic chaos. Ejecting Catalonia from Europe could temporarily quarantine the eurozone from crisis, but only at the expense of a collapsed Catalonian economy. Banks and corporations are already evacuating the region. The new country would not be officially allowed to use the euro currency. Catalonia would either have to take on an enormous debt or renege on its share of the debt accumulated while part of Spain, thereby antagonising the Spanish government and the Spanish people even more. Creating border agencies, a military, and all the other trappings of an independent state would only be plausible after first sorting out the problem of whose money to use. And of course, an independent Catalonia would never join the European Union. Either its debt would be too high to qualify, or an angry Spanish government, burdened with paying Catalonia's debts, would veto every application. We would see Catalonia become a pariah state, the Western European equivalent of Belarus. Isolated, stagnant, and unrecognised by its own neighbours, the Republic of Catalonia's problems would put post-Brexit Britain's to shame.

Carles Puigdemont has tried to kick the can down the road - while continuing to anger his opponents and disappoint his followers. By postponing a declaration of independence for the time being, he possibly hopes to avoid the economic and political catastrophe of crashing out of the European Union and instead force Madrid into granting even more autonomy for Catalonia. But greater autonomy within Spain is not what two million Catalans voted for. And like a genie released from its bottle, the emotions he has unleashed will not be easily contained.

Constitutional autonomy and debt management can be negotiated. Resentment and anger cannot. The two million Catalans who defied the Spanish state on October 1st voted for independence not semi-autonomy, and a climate of fierce emotions is not conducive to sober, rational negotiations. Already they feel let down, even betrayed, by both Puigdemont and the Madrid government. We can expect increasing criticism of Puigdemont's leadership as he botched this opportunity, in the eyes of separatists, to fulfil the mandate which he asked for and which the Catalans gave him on October 1st. Emotions are already high, and over the next few weeks unionists and separatists, Catalans and Spaniards, will blame each other. Talks between Rajoy and Puigdemont, which Rajoy has rejected, would be stillborn as neither is willing to shift on negotiating points. If Madrid now invokes Article 155 and takes direct control of the region, local resistance by an angry Catalan population which lead to serious civil unrest and a possible state of emergency. If Madrid calls elections in the hope of splitting Puigdemont's fragile coalition, political chaos will ensure - and it could backfire if hardcore separatists defy Puigdemont and act unilaterally.

Puigdemont now has five days to clarify his position on independence. If he withdraws his claim, he will either become a focus for two million peoples' visceral anger, or a political martyr crushed by an imagined Spanish interloper. If Puigdemont does reluctantly declare the independence which he wanted, it will only result in a political situation that is even more bitter, more acrimonious, and more likely to result in civil unrest. Instead of toasting the independence he sought, Puigdemont now finds himself sipping from a poisoned chalice.

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