Catalonia President Carles Puigdemont found the EU institutions’ doors closed in his first official visit to Belgium in early May, but he said that he would embark on a charm offensive after the in-or-out referendum in the United Kingdom next June.
European Commission spokesperson, Mina Andreeva, confirmed on Monday (2 May) that Puigdemont’s cabinet contacted Juncker’s team to request a meeting, but the petition was declined as the agenda “does not allow for such a meeting”.
The Commission agenda did not include any meeting with the pro-independence leader either, she pointed out.
Officials told EurActiv.com that the Permanent Representative of Catalonia in Brussels, and former Commission official, Amadeu Altafaj, contacted Juncker’s head of cabinet Martin Selmayr, to try to arrange such a meeting.
The executive’s comments countered Puigdemont’s version.
He stated early in the morning that he did not ask for any meeting because the intention of his first three day-visit to Belgium “was not talking to any EU representative”.
He explained that he would ask for such a meeting once he sees an interest on the EU side to discuss Catalonia’s bid for independence.
“We will ask for it [a meeting] when we notice that there is a mutual interest” he said, while adding that “I have strong arguments on the table to believe that they would want to meet with us.”
The Catalonian leader also commented that he would wait for the result of the referendum in the UK before trying to meet with EU leaders.
The EU institutions play a crucial role in the Catalonia government’s plan to break-up with Spain. The pro-independence parties that won the elections by absolute majority last September argue that the EU would not leave an independent Catalonia outside the 28-member club.
However, the Commission and various European leaders insisted over the last few months that Spain’s wealthiest region would have to queue to launch the accession process to the EU.
If that happened, Juncker warned that the issue “would not be solved easily”, he said in an interview during the campaign for the European elections in 2014.
Meanwhile Commissioner for Economic Affairs, Pierre Moscovici told Vanity Fair in April that “I am only a Plan A person, and the only Plan A is a united Spain, because that is the reality.”
Ties with Flanders
Puigdemont spent his official agenda mostly in Flanders, as the reason for his visit was the invitation of the Minister-President of the region, Geert Bourgeois.
Over the weekend, the Catalonian journalist turned into politician met with Bourgeois and other officials of the Flemish nationalist party, N-VA, including the Mayor of Antwerp, Bart de Wever.
The meeting between the two regional leaders aimed at bolstering the economic ties and the commercial relationship between Catalonia and Flanders.
But Bourgeois also offered veiled support for Catalonia’s quest for independence. Although he stressed that both regions have “many similitudes but also many differences”, the cooperation between the two sides would be “stronger” even if Catalonia becomes an independent state.
“Catalonia has launched its process to become an independent state within the EU. This process is not targeted against anyone and we want to keep good relations with the Spanish state,” Bourgeois commented on 30 April.
In the context of EU affairs, the Catalonian nationalist only succeeded in meeting with the President of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), Hans van Baalen.
Puigdemont’s party, the Democratic Convergence of Catalonia, is part of ALDE.
However, he did not meet with the liberal party’s heavyweight and head of the group in the European Parliament, Guy Verhofstadt.
Verhofstadt, a former prime minister of Belgium, has developed closer ties with the leader of Ciudadanos, Albert Rivera.
Ciudadanos was set up in Catalonia as a liberal party to counter the nationalist forces, and has become one of the rising forces in Spain breaking the two-party system that dominated the Spanish politics since the end of the dictatorship.
Pro-independence feeling has surged in Catalonia in recent years, fanned by disagreements with the conservative central government and Spain's sharp economic downturn, which has left nearly one in four people out of work, despite a slow recovery in recent months.
During a symbolic independence referendum held in November 2014, which the top court in Spain ruled unconstitutional, only 1.9 million out of 6.3 million potential voters cast their ballot in favour of secession.
Before the elections, secessionist had announced their intention to carry on with the breakaway process and declare independence within 18 months, should they earn an absolute majority.
Their plans include approving a Catalan constitution, building institutions like an army, central bank, a judicial system and a tax collection agency.
In the most extreme scenario, the Spanish government could activate Article 155 of the constitution, suspending Catalan autonomy, although this would be under very exceptional circumstances.