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Why can’t the EU do more about the crisis in Catalonia?

The bloc is powerless to head off disaster in Spain.

Catalonia has declared its independence from Spain. Sort of.

Although Catalonian voters backed independence in a referendum (albeit one which the opposition chose to boycott rather than contest) and now the Catalonian legislature has voted to carry that decision through (again, anti-independence legislators chose to shun, rather than vote against the measure), the Spanish constitution renders Spain indivisible. This means no part of Spain can declare its separation from another part.

The central government in Madrid has now triggered Article 155 of the constitution, allowing it to take direct control of the region. The centre-right administration will appoint an interim government with the hope of holding fresh elections which, the Spanish government will hope, will return an anti-independence government in the region.

It is almost certain there will be some resistance from parts of civic society and Catalonian government officials, increasing the chances of violent clashes between Spanish police and locals.

One of the difficulties – as well as the crass handling of the whole affair by the Spanish government – is that as written, the Spanish constitution makes it impossible to have a grown-up dialogue about independence. If any region, city or whatever wants to declare independence, even in a referendum that has been administrated by impartial officials, it can’t, it’s as simple as that.

The New Statesman will be running on-the-ground pieces from Catalonia, but a lot of people are asking why the European Union isn’t acting as a mediator, so I thought it would be helpful to explain.

The EU, like the United Nations and most international organisations, gives strong veto powers to its constituent members. Although the internal constitutions of some nations, such as Belgium, hand some of those powers to the constituent regions of the nation, in Spain those powers of veto are reserved to the central government.

In addition, the EU has no powers over policing standards, which is why the bloc is powerless to intervene or curb violent clashes between police and protestors, which marred the referendum vote and will likely once again scar the streets in coming days.

Individual politicians in nation-states have more freedom to condemn the violence, though sitting governments, including that of the United Kingdom, have largely judged that they are better off keeping the government they negotiate with sweet rather than wading in. Most will do as European Council President Donald Tusk has done, and confine themselves to calling for sensitivity from the Spanish government.

This is why Brexiteers using the Catalan crisis to condemn the EU and to refight the referendum are managing a unique combination of disingenuousness and ineptitude. It’s disingenuous because the powers the EU would need to have to be an effective mediator in the dispute have been fiercely blocked and defended by pretty much every government across the EU, but British Eurosceptic ones in particular. But it is also inept because there is a story to tell about the failure of all multinational organisations to guarantee good behaviour among their own members. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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Jeremy Corbyn supporters should stop excusing Labour’s anti-immigration drift

The Labour leader is a passionate defender of migrants’ rights – Brexit shouldn’t distract the new left movement from that.

Something strange is happening on the British left – a kind of deliberate collective amnesia. During the EU referendum, the overwhelming majority of the left backed Remain.

Contrary to a common myth, both Jeremy Corbyn and the movement behind him put their weight into a campaign that argued forcefully for internationalism, migrants’ rights and regulatory protections.

And yet now, as Labour’s policy on Brexit hardens, swathes of the left appear to be embracing Lexit, and a set of arguments which they would have laughed off stage barely a year ago.

The example of free movement is glaring and obvious, but worth rehashing. When Labour went into the 2017 general election promising to end free movement with the EU, it did so with a wider election campaign whose tone was more pro-migrant than any before it.

Nonetheless, the policy itself, along with restricting migrants’ access to public funds, stood in a long tradition of Labour triangulating to the right on immigration for electorally calculated reasons. When Ed Miliband promised “tough controls on immigration”, the left rightly attacked him.  

The result of this contradiction is that those on the left who want to agree unequivocally with the leadership must find left-wing reasons for doing so. And so, activists who have spent years declaring their solidarity with migrants and calling for a borderless world can now be found contemplating ways for the biggest expansion of border controls in recent British history – which is what the end of free movement would mean – to seem progressive, or like an opportunity.

The idea that giving ground to migrant-bashing narratives or being harsher on Poles might make life easier for non-EU migrants was rightly dismissed by most left-wing activists during the referendum.

Now, some are going quiet or altering course.

On the Single Market, too, neo-Lexit is making a comeback. Having argued passionately in favour of membership, both the Labour leadership and a wider layer of its supporters now argue – to some extent or another – that only by leaving the Single Market could Labour implement a manifesto.

This is simply wrong: there is very little in Labour’s manifesto that does not have an already-existing precedent in continental Europe. In fact, the levers of the EU are a key tool for clamping down on the power of big capital.

In recent speeches, Corbyn has spoken about the Posted Workers’ Directive – but this accounts for about 0.17 per cent of the workforce, and is about to be radically reformed by the European Parliament.

The dangers of this position are serious. If Labour’s leadership takes the path of least resistance on immigration policy and international integration, and its support base rationalises these compromises uncritically, then the logic of the Brexit vote – its borders, its affirmation of anti-migrant narratives, its rising nationalist sentiment – will be mainlined into Labour Party policy.

Socialism in One Country and a return to the nation state cannot work for the left, but they are being championed by the neo-Lexiteers. In one widely shared blogpost on Novara Media, one commentator even goes as far as alluding to Britain’s Road to Socialism – the official programme of the orthodox Communist Party.

The muted and supportive reaction of Labour’s left to the leadership’s compromises on migration and Brexit owes much to the inept positioning of the Labour right. Centrists may gain personal profile and factional capital when the weaponising the issue, but the consequences have been dire.

Around 80 per cent of Labour members still want a second referendum, and making himself the “stop Brexit” candidate could in a parallel universe have been Owen Smith’s path to victory in the second leadership election.

But it meant that in the summer of 2016, when the mass base of Corbynism hardened its factional resolve, it did so under siege not just from rebelling MPs, but from the “Remoaners” as well.

At every juncture, the strategy of the centrist Labour and media establishment has made Brexit more likely. Every time a veteran of the New Labour era – many of whom have appalling records on, for instance, migrants’ rights – tells Labour members to fight Brexit, party members run a mile.

If Tony Blair’s messiah complex was accurate, he would have saved us all a long time ago – by shutting up and going away. The atmosphere of subterfuge and siege from MPs and the liberal press has, by necessity, created a culture of loyalty and intellectual conformity on the left.

But with its position in the party unassailable, and a radical Labour government within touching distance of Downing Street, the last thing the Labour leadership now needs is a wave of Corbynite loyalty-hipsters hailing its every word.

As the history of every attempt to form a radical government shows, what we desperately need is a movement with its own internal democratic life, and an activist army that can push its leaders as well as deliver leaflets for them.

Lexit is no more possible now than it was during the EU referendum, and the support base of the Labour left and the wider party is overwhelmingly in favour of free movement and EU membership.

Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott are passionate, principled advocates for migrants’ rights and internationalism. By showing leadership, Labour can once again change what is electorally possible.