Spooked by Catalonia, EU rallies behind Madrid, but warily

Reuters – Spain’s EU partners fear a mounting crisis over Catalans’ latest push for independence, and their public support for Mariano Rajoy belies some disquiet that the conservative prime minister’s hardline tactics might backfire.

Few foreign leaders will speak out on a domestic dispute in which government and courts in Madrid say the Catalan regional authorities in Barcelona are defying a constitutional ban on secession by preparing an independence referendum for Oct. 1.

The official European Union line is that Spanish democracy works and Spaniards should settle their affairs according to national laws. But the worsening standoff, with police arresting elected Catalan officials this week, is troubling officials and politicians abroad, who fear it may hurt Europe in various ways.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, through a spokesman, echoed that line when asked by Reuters if she had had recent contact on the matter with Rajoy, a fellow conservative. While stressing it was an “internal Spanish matter”, the spokesman also recalled that Merkel had in previous years told Rajoy that Berlin had “great interest in the maintenance of stability in Spain”.

As with the 2014 referendum in Scotland, which unlike Catalonia’s vote was held with the blessing of the central government in London, countries fear encouraging separatists at home: Belgium’s Flemings, Italy’s Lombards and so on. There is also a broader unwillingness as Britain exits from the EU to open another Pandora’s box of economic uncertainty and legal disruption.

The EU’s chief executive, Jean-Claude Juncker, was irked when Catalans seized on a remarks last week that they could join the EU after independence to suggest he favoured their cause.

The European Commission president said he had only reiterated the so-called “Prodi doctrine”, dating back 13 years. This is that a breakaway state would have to leave the Union and could then only be let back in if it has gained independence in accordance with constitutional law in the member state it left.

Juncker also said that rich “regional traditions” should not become “elements of separatism and fragmentation of Europe”.

The Commission feels constrained by EU law not to take sides in Spain. But the European Parliament, led by the European People’s Party (EPP), the centre-right bloc to which Rajoy, Merkel and Juncker belong, is more vocal in backing Madrid.

Antonio Tajani, the legislature’s Italian conservative president, bluntly told a Catalan newspaper last week that to ignore Spain’s constitution was to undermine the legal basis for the whole European Union: “Those are the rules,” he said.

A senior EU official said Juncker was likely to go on exercising his right to stay largely silent on the issue for now: “It’s like in those police shows,” he said. “Anything you say can be held against you. It’s better not to say anything.”