A few weeks ago I wrote that the Catalan President, Carles Puigdemont, had dug an elephant trap for the Spanish Prime Minister who had obligingly fallen into it. Madrid’s tough and intemperate response to the illegal Catalan referendum had played into Puigdemont’s hands, allowing him to occupy the high moral ground. A fair enough judgement, I thought, and indeed it still seems so. Yet things look very different today, and some revision is needed.
Mr Puigdemont, it now seems, wasn’t a digger of elephant traps; he was a poker player. He had bluffed his adversary and scooped the pot. But it turns out he is rash and addicted to bluffing. Instead of playing a waiting game, he bluffed again proclaiming Catalan independence. This bluff was called, and Mr Puigdemont has , for the time being, left the table and taken refuge in Belgium where the separatist Flemish party seems to welcome him. Meanwhile back in Spain, he is likely to be charged with rebellion just as, I suppose, General Franco would have been if he had lost, instead of winning, the Civil War. How all this will play out is as the Romans used to say, “apud deos” – in the lap of the gods. Any speculation is therefore profitless.
Some, even in Brussels, are ready to say this is a crisis for the EU, not only for Spain. “Crisis” may be too strong a word; but it’s certainly a difficult time. Some call for EU intervention, even some who habitually deplore what they call the EU Super-State. But this would seem to be a case where the EU has neither the power nor the authority to act.
The reason is simple. The EU is an association of sovereign member states. I know that this accurate description offends, even infuriates, many Brexiteers. Nevertheless that’s what it is. Such powers as it has have been delegated to it in a series of Treaties negotiated and signed by the member states. No Treaty has authorised it to interfere in the constitutional affairs of member states. It has no power to tell Madrid to approve an independence referendum in Catalonia; it has no power to approve Mr Puigdemont’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence. The Commission, as represented by Mr Juncker, can offer advice. It can urge both sides to talk. It might even offer to chair these talks. But that’s all it can legitimately do. The Commission is ultimately only the EU’s Civil Service, even if, having been created on the French model, it may take the lead in initiating policies as the UK Civil Service can’t , or at least shouldn’t.
The political authority of the EU is the Council of Ministers, but nobody can expect the Heads of Government of the Member States to do anything more than to recommend respect for, and adherence to, the Constitution of each Member State. To go beyond this would be to invite interference at some point in the future in their own constitutional affairs. So, for instance, when the UK Government permitted the Scottish Parliament to stage its Independence Referendum, this was correctly regarded as the UK’s internal business. The Commission and members of the Council of Ministers contented themselves with expressing the hope that the Union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland would survive, and warning the Scots that , in the event of a ”Yes” vote, Scotland would not automatically remain in the EU, but would have to make an application for membership – an application which some Member States , notably indeed Spain, might not approve.
No doubt if there is eventually a legal referendum in Catalonia, and the Catalans vote to secede from Spain, Catalonia would then find itself where Scotland would have been if there had been a majority for Independence in 2014 – that’s to say in the queue for EU membership, making an application that would have to be approved by the Council of Ministers and (I think) the European Parliament.
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One might, if only in a spirit of mischief, add a footnote. Many of those who insisted that British membership of the EU amounted to a surrender of sovereignty, rather than the leasing of sovereign authority in certain areas as agreed in successive Treaties, believed that the EU’s regional policies and the grants it made to regional authorities were evidence of a determination to weaken national governments. The “Europe of the Regions”, a fairly nebulous description of Brussels’ programmes of regional economic and cultural development, was portrayed as a sort of pincer movement in which national governments would be squeezed between Brussels and regional authorities. This was a gross exaggeration, but, had there been anything of substance in these fears, one would have expected the EU to welcome Catalan secession now, and to have welcomed Scottish secession from the UK three years ago. But of course it doesn’t and didn’t, for the very good and – I should have thought – obvious reason that no State in a Union of Member States is likely to approve of the dismemberment of any sovereign State. Accordingly, approval of Mr Puigdemont’s attempt to break up Spain has come only from political parties in, primarily or at present, Belgium and Scotland, parties, that is, which identify their own aspirations with those of the secessionist Catalans.