The European Union is often said to be all talk and too little action.
Catalonia’s controversial bid to break away from Spain has been all action and no talk at all between the two sides.
It would seem a perfect opportunity for EU officials to step in as mediators.
But as Catalonia’s ousted president Carles Puigdemont made a surprise appearance in the EU’s capital, Brussels, this week, after unilaterally declaring independence last Friday, he has won no sympathy from any of the bloc’s member states.
Behind their silence in the face of Catalonia’s independence drive lies a patchwork of separatist and nationalist movements gurgling elsewhere around the continent. European leaders also fear that Catalan sentiment could spearhead more protests against the established order – represented both by governments and the European Union itself.
From the Faroe Islands in the North Atlantic to Sicily in the Mediterranean, from Brittany in the west of France to Silesia in the Czech Republic, nearly two dozen regions have spawned political movements demanding more autonomy, if not outright independence.
They are a disparate bunch, but they are linked by frustration and a sense that globalization has taken decisions out of their hands.
“People across countries are trying to say we want to decide about our own lives,” says Pere Almeda, the coordinator of the Barcelona-based Catalonia Europe Foundation, which aims to strengthen links between Catalonia and Europe.
Mr. Puigdemont himself, who faces the threat of prosecution for rebellion at home, is a committed European. He had gone to Brussels, he explained to reporters, because the city is “the institutional heart of Europe. This is a European issue, and I want Europe to react.”
So far it hasn’t. Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel gave the Catalan separatist a cold welcome, lining up with other EU heads of state who have declared they will only deal with Madrid on the question of Catalonia.
States, not statelets, please
Mr. Michel has his own reasons for such a stance; one of the partners in his coalition government is a Flemish nationalist party that has in the past called for the breakup of Belgium. And Belgium is not alone.
The only serious breakaway movements in Europe are to be found in Scotland and Catalonia, and even there they enjoy only minority support. But secessionist sentiment remains a live issue across the continent.
Ten days ago, voters in a referendum in northern Italy chose greater autonomy. As in Catalonia, citizens were voicing a mainly economic demand from a wealthy region that sees its local authorities as more efficient and less corrupt than the central government.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker stated the EU’s position clearly on Friday as Catalonia declared independence. The EU “doesn't need any more cracks, more splits,” he said. “I wouldn't want the European Union to consist of 95 member states in the future.”
The EU’s response makes legal sense: The independence referendum that the provincial Catalan government called on October 1st was declared unconstitutional by Spanish courts before it was held. It makes political sense too: Only 43 percent of Catalonia’s voters turned out at the referendum, and opinion surveys have never shown more than half of Catalans seeking their own republic.
Perhaps the greatest challenge to the EU comes from the generalized protest against the political status quo that echoes from Brexit to Milan to Barcelona.
“It is an enormous challenge,” says Justin Frosini, an associate professor at Bocconi University in Milan. “I think we are … in a kind of crisis of the nation state as such. There is a lot of pressure on a lot of the member states.”
Many Catalans, disappointed by the EU’s passivity, were especially outraged by Brussels’ failure to condemn the violence that Spanish national police used to try to prevent the illegal independence referendum from happening.
“Because the established order is at stake in the European Union,” they look the other way, says Bart Maddens, a politics professor at the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium, and a Flemish nationalist with sympathy for Puigdemont.
“I wouldn’t expect the EU to support the Catalan cause,” he adds, “but at least show some understanding for Catalan demands. This is not something that happened overnight.”
Mind the gap
Nowhere is such discontent stronger than in Catalonia. Alfonso Albarracin, sitting at a coffee bar in a food market in Barcelona on a work break, says he was never interested in independence. But the Spanish government’s intransigence and heavy handedness prompted him to head to his polling station on October 1st.
He didn’t get a chance to express his views though: The Spanish police had shut the polling station down. The entire experience has left him angry – at all players. “The problem is the Catalans just want power, and Madrid wants the money,” he says. “And Europe is never going to do anything about it.”
Twenty years ago the EU paid more attention to its regions, making proposals that would have given them more of a voice in Brussels. “Europe of the regions” was a concept embraced with enthusiasm in Catalonia and elsewhere, says Michael Keating, who teaches Scottish politics at the University of Aberdeen.
“They were interested in that idea because they thought if they could get a regionalized Europe there wouldn’t need to be independence,” he explains. But the idea never took off: the EU was interested in regional policies but not their politics, Prof. Keating says. Today the union remains a bloc of member states who deal with each other only at the national level.
Their united stance has, for now, buoyed the Spanish government and weakened Catalonia’s hand, says Prof. Frosini. But resentments persist, and the EU ignores them at its peril. “EU institutions need to try and understand some of the problems at the grassroots levels in member states,” he suggests. “There is a gap … between institutions and ordinary people on the streets in different countries.”
In some quarters, the Catalonia crisis has generated heady discussions about the future of the nation state. New states were founded, and accepted by the international community, in the geopolitical shakeups after the two world wars and the fall of communism, recalls Mr. Almeda in Barcelona.
Now, he believes, it is time once again for Europe, its nation states, and its regions to rethink decision-making and sovereignty. Catalonia, he hopes, will spearhead that effort.