Catalonia’s President is pushing for an independence referendum to be held in November. In spite of the official EU position that this is an internal matter for Spain, leading candidates for the European elections have made comments signalling divisions. EurActiv Spain reports.

In letters dating from December 2013, Catalonia's president Artur Mas urged European powers to encourage a referendum that the centre-right government of Mariano Rajoy says is unconstitutional and will not allow [read more].

The president of the EU executive, José Manuel Barroso, answered the Catalan leader in early January, stating that "the situation in Catalonia is a Spanish internal matter." “The EU is based on the treaties, applicable only to the Member States that have adopted and ratified them. If part of the territory of a Member State ceases to be part of the State to become a new independent state, the treaties will no longer be applicable in that area”, he explained.

The President of the European Council Herman Van Rompuy also said that a declaration of independence of Catalonia would transform into a third country vis-a-vis the EU and thus, EU treaties wouldn’t apply.

Viviane Reding, vice president of the European Commission, in February said that although "the Catalans are fervent Europeans," taking into account the rules of the EU, Catalonia "will be outside the European Union within seconds of the vote in favor of independence". Reding expressed respect for the Catalan desire for independence, but insisted that the process of returning to the Union "would not be quick", adding that she would regret "a Europe without Catalonia".

Juncker blunt

The leading candidate of the European People's party (EPP) for Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker, spoke in blunt terms to the newspaper ABC: "Those who believe that Europe would accept an independent Catalonia, are deeply wrong." He hinted that even if Spain would accept independence, if Catalonia submitted its application for EU membership, the issue would not be “easily resolved." Indeed, for the accession of new member states to the Union, accession negotiations should be conducted, and unanimity is required.

Furthermore, Juncker stressed that in view of the great challenges that Europe will face in the next 50 years, "it is not the time to split" neither to "inflict Spain an unnecessary division".

However, within the PPE, other voices have been heard, and they are not so convinced that an eventual process of accession to the EU of Catalonia would be as slow as Reding said. Maïté Sanchez-Schmid, an EPP-affiliated French MEP, said that "the EU doors are not closed to a possible independent Catalonia".

If the current treaties do not provide the accession of new countries formerly part of a member state, this is, according to Sanchez-Schmid, because such case has not arisen." But the MEP says she believes that the EU "will evolve" in that sense.

However, she makes it clear that "it is not Europe who will decide whether Catalonia should be independent or not," because it is an "internal matter". Sanchez-Schmid adds that it "would not be understood” if the Catalan people democratically expressed their wish for independence, but their opinion would not be taken into account.

In Spain, the governing Popular Party's position on the issue is clear and unequivocal: they reject Catalan´s demand for a referendum, described by the Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy as "illegal". Rajoy also made it clear in the PP's agenda for the European elections, in which, under the slogan "Together we are stronger in Europe", he reaffirms the integrity of the territory of Spain in the EU.

Schulz cautious

Martin Schulz, leading candidate of the European Socialists Party (PES) for Commission President, has been the most cautious in its approach to the issue, probably due to his position as President of the European Parliament. Last November, Schulz said in an interview for the Catalan Channel 3/24, that he doesn’t believe that what happens in Catalonia "will dent stability of Europe". He also stated that he is not in favour that the EU should take positions at any point in this debate. "This is not an European issue. It is a matter of Catalonia and Spain," said the Socialist candidate.

Schulz will visit the Catalan capital shortly before the European elections. On 21 May, the Socialist politician will travel to Barcelona to participate in a campaign event with the head of the list of the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE), Elena Valenciano, and of the Socialist Party of Catalonia (PSC), Javier López. The latter, in a recent interview with EFE, said that this meeting was a "good sign of the European interest for the elections in Catalonia for the Europeans elections." The EU elections were not a good occasion to discuss independence. They were about “European affairs”, the Catalan politician added.

However, Valenciano does see the EU as a good scenario to discuss Catalonia’s future. In a recent interview, she argued that the EU "can play a role that favours dialogue" since it has many mechanisms to influence this issue". The PSOE plans to table its “federal proposal” at its congress to be held in June.

Hannes Swoboda, leader of the group of Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament, has called supporters of independence to be "realistic" and warned that Catalonia could be expelled from the EU "if they get to be independent without an agreement with the Spanish government". The Austrian politician accused the pro-independence camp trying "to destroy what we have built in recent decades", and warned them that if independence is proclaimed, they would "turn its back on Europe."

Swoboda advocates a federal solution, as was also proposed a few days ago by the PSOE candidate Ramón Jáuregui, who argued for a pact on a federal key, "to accept the integration problem to continue living together." Swoboda advocated a similar line. He said he was strongly in favour of federations, and of trying to find solutions together, with a common future in Europe.

Verhofstadt distanced

The leading candidate of the Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), Guy Verhofstadt, choose to distance himself from the issue. "My understanding is that this is a Catalan and Spanish affair. I do not think that Europe should get involved and going into this fight, battle, discussion or debate, as you prefer to call," he explained.  "It's a typical question of national character. Should we decide on our domestic law of member states? No, this is not my ambition," the former Belgian Prime Minister said.

Ska Keller supportive

In contrast with the others, Ska Keller, the leading candidate of the Greens for the European elections, supported the sovereignist consultation on 10 March at a press conference along with leaders of Initiative for Catalonia Greens (ICV). Keller calls for dialogue and believes that the Government should undertake this process "so the referendum can take place".

Keller also added that if she is appointed in the next elections to the European Parliament, she would support sovereignty talks for Catalonia. "I take my commitment today, if I am elected President of the European Commission, that (it) will support that Catalonia can decide their political future and its relationship with Spain in a referendum," said the Green leader.

Ernest Urtasun, the ICV head of list for the European elections, said Keller's commitment to support the sovereignty referendum was an example of "great courage", adding that "we must seek allies in Europe to defend the Catalans´right to decide".

MEP Raül Romeva of ICV also stressed that the support for the right to decide is "inherent" in the Green Party.

The European Left Party (PIE) made it clear that it opts for "dialogue". Thus, the candidate to the European of United Left, Willy Meyer warned that it would be "a real nonsense” if Rajoy would consider suspending the autonomy of Catalonia to counter the call for referendum on the Catalan sovereignty.

What remains clear is that the Catalan independence is an issue that will continue to generate discussion after 25 May, at both the national and the EU level.