Ignacio Molina: Catalan separatists will never gain EU support

A pro-independence rally in Catalonia [Day Donaldson/Flickr]

Many of the most radical Catalan separatists believe the autonomous elections on 27 September 27 this year will open the door to the question of secession from Spain. Researcher Ignacio Molina believes this is a dangerous idea. 

Ignacio Molina is a researcher and EU specialist at the Elcano Royal Institute, a Spanish think-tank.

How have we reached a point of such high tension between the autonomous community of Catalonia and the central government in Madrid?

Many Catalans have trouble making the mental, emotional and sentimental connection with Spain. This is a fact. On the other hand, we have to understand that Catalonia enjoys many advantages as a part of Spain: a higher level of international protection, economic prosperity thanks to a much larger internal market. In short, the Catalans do not recognise the advantages of belonging to Spain. Right now everything is radical and theatrical in Catalonia. Many of the secessionists know that [the independence movement] is doomed to failure or uncontrollable conflict. But they would prefer to suffer an epic defeat than to engage in practical and rational negotiations with Madrid over gaining more autonomy.

On the one hand, if someone were to ask me about the international impact of the Catalan case, my answer would be that it has “no impact at all”. If the phenomenon led to a violent uprising or a coup in the territory, that would completely change the outlook. But for the moment, the two sides are involved in a peaceful and democratic process.

Where has caused the discontent of so many Catalans? Has Madrid done everything it could in this regard?

Of course we could criticise both sides, the Catalans and Madrid. It is possible that the law was applied with excessive rigidity at some points, but of course that depends on the analyst and their ideological point of view. This secessionist phenomenon is nothing new. Some time ago they were talking of “unilateral secession” in Canada [Quebec]. These kinds of proposals, like those recently launched by “Junts pel Si”, have already been made many times in advanced democracies like Spain.

Recently, several experts in constitutional law have said that central government could temporarily “suspend” Catalan autonomy if the Spanish Magna Carta is violated. What is your opinion on this very delicate subject?

Of course it is a very delicate subject, but the way I see it is that as long as the process is peaceful, there will be no major problems. Even if the central government decided to suspend regional autonomy (according to article 155 of the Spanish constitution, applicable in very exceptional circumstances), the European Union would see it as a “normal” part of the democratic process. It would not be a scandal.

Would the Catalan separatists find foreign support for their battle with Madrid?

Catalan separatism has no international dimension. At best the separatist forces could hope for some editorials in the international media and maybe a few gestures of sympathy. But the Catalan case will never take on an international dimension in the eyes of the international institutions, the governments of the EU or elsewhere in the world. It will always be perceived as a uniquely Spanish issue. Catalonia has the most advanced autonomous status in the whole of Europe, much more than Scotland. Apart from Quebec, or Flanders in Belgium, it is very difficult to find another community with so many competencies.

Is this a calculated strategy?

Yes. It is very probable that Artur Mas (the Catalan president) and “Junts pel Si” are using this strategy of pressure in the hope of gaining even more competences from Madrid. Even if this is the case, it is unlikely that the Catalan separatists will gain support from the international community, and certainly not from the EU.

The key issue in the debate is that Catalonia has not legal basis for “unilateral secession”, unlike East Timor, South Sudan, Kosovo, North Cyprus, South Ossetia and Abkhazia among others. In all these cases there was a unilateral declaration of independence, but the consequences were different: some failed, others were crowned with success.

What evidence are the Catalans separatists using to support their demands?

For the international community to support a region or community’s aspirations towards independence, it must have a very strong legal status. This was the case in East Timor and South Sudan, for example. This status can originate in various ways, including decolonisation, crimes against humanity, repression of local languages etc. This is not the case in Catalonia, and the Catalans have not even tried to convince the courts that they can use these arguments.

For several years, the Catalan separatists have based a large part of their strategy on the claim that Spain is recentralising power in a way that affects all the Spanish autonomous communities, not just Catalonia.

They believe the economic crisis and the need for greater control over public deficits in the autonomous regions, as well as the need to meet the demands of the EU, has prompted the right wing Spanish government to reclaim certain powers from the autonomous states.

Are these criticisms justified in Catalonia?

Some of them have a foundation, but they are light years away from being able to justify the unilateral secession of Catalonia.

I think the Catalan separatists should be more careful or they may end up with the opposite of what they hoped for: being despised by the international community, especially the EU, for questioning the fundamental elements of a modern democracy. We should not forget that the consensus within the international community is that territorial integrity and constitutional order should be protected. Given that Catalonia has not been the victim of any serious injustice, the separatists do not have a leg to stand on. 

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