News analysis

Catalan crisis leaves Europe on a tightrope

Region's leaders have to balance between dismissing nationalists and supporting Spain

The former separatist leader of Spain's Catalonia region has fled to Belgium in an effort to evade arrest on charges of sedition filed against him back home by the Spanish Attorney-General.

The presence of the now-deposed Catalan regional president Carles Puigdemont in the Belgian capital of Brussels, which also serves as the headquarters of the European Union, will do little to shift the opinion of all European governments; they are unanimous in their support for Spain's central authorities which have dissolved Catalonia's autonomous government after it tried to declare independence.

Still, Mr Puigdemont's Brussels move is shrewd, for it keeps the limelight on the Catalan separatist leader and his cause, as well as gives him the ability to lobby EU institutions, should the situation in Spain reach an impasse.

EU leaders are acutely aware of the danger that any encouragement of Catalan independence could stir up many other separatist movements throughout the continent. From the Scots in the United Kingdom; Bretons and Corsicans in France; and German-speakers and other groups in Italy, to Bavarians in Germany as well as ethnic Hungarians in countries such as Romania and Slovakia; the list of potential future separatist flashpoints seems endless.

"I wouldn't want the EU to consist of 95 states," said Mr Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, the EU's executive body, adding that the current 28-member Union did not need "any more cracks, more splits".

EU officials are equally weary of accusations that, by progressively erasing the significance of European borders and playing down the importance of states, the Union itself may be indirectly encouraging separatist movements. So, Mr Donald Tusk, who heads the European Council - which brings together EU heads of governments - spoke for all his colleagues when he pointedly remarked that it is not Catalonia but Spain which "remains our only interlocutor in the crisis".

Dismissed Catalonian regional president Carles Puigdemont arriving at the Press Club in Brussels yesterday. He is in Belgium in an effort to evade arrest on charges of sedition filed against him back home in Spain. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Individual governments were even more explicit in dismissing the Catalan nationalists. "The UK does not and will not recognise the unilateral declaration of independence made by the Catalan regional Parliament," read a statement issued by British Prime Minister Theresa May. "We continue to want to see the rule of law upheld, the Spanish Constitution respected and Spanish unity preserved," she said.

The danger for the European Union is that it could end up being pilloried by all sides: by a Spain angry for not getting sufficient backing, and by Catalan separatists who still hope to drag all Europe to their cause.

"The sovereignty and territorial integrity of Spain are and remain inviolable," added German Chancellor Angela Merkel's official spokesman.

The EU also moved fast to scotch any suggestions that, should Catalonia ever gain independence, it could automatically become a member of the Union; "a territory leaving Spain would find itself outside of the European Union," the EU Commission warned, thereby serving notice on the Catalans that, if they tear up Spain, they also sever all their economic ties and forfeit the right to use the euro single currency.

For the moment, EU members are reassured by the fact that, while dissolving Catalonia's autonomous government, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy also announced that new elections will be held in the province on Dec 21, thereby implying that the crisis may be short.

Reports that the re-imposition of direct Spanish control went smoothly with Catalan civil servants reporting to duty as normal were also a huge relief to European leaders who feared that the process could have descended into violence.

Still, their support for Spain remains fragile. In private, many European leaders dissociate themselves from Spanish Prime Minister Rajoy's rigidly inflexible line against any expression of Catalan separatism, pointing out that other countries - such as Britain - have in fact allowed separatist referendums.

Meanwhile, top EU officials are now warning that their support cannot be taken for granted by the Spanish government, especially if any violence erupts in Catalonia; "I hope the Spanish government favours force of argument, not argument of force" was the thinly veiled hint from Mr Tusk.

And the presence of Mr Puigdemont in Brussels is already threatening to upend Belgium's own politics, which is also plagued by separatist demands.

Mr Puigdemont appears to be enjoying support from Flemish nationalists who are part of the Belgian ruling coalition, but who may well be tempted to use the Catalonia "card" by reviving their own claims for the secession of the Dutch-speaking province of Flanders from Belgium. Belgian Prime Minister Jean Michel has appealed to Flemish nationalists "not to add fuel to the fire" by using the Catalan crisis as a justification for toppling his government.

Still, Mr Michel also criticised the Spanish government's behaviour: "A political crisis can only be solved through dialogue," he said, in a thinly veiled rebuke to Mr Rajoy.

The danger for the EU is that it could end up being pilloried by all sides: by a Spain angry for not getting sufficient backing, and by Catalan separatists who still hope to drag all Europe to their cause.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 01, 2017, with the headline 'Catalan crisis leaves Europe on a tightrope'. Print Edition | Subscribe