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

The bloc is powerless to head off disaster in Spain.

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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 political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.