Madrid is cracking down hard on preparations for a Catalan independence referendum on October 1. After levying charges against Catalonia’s President and over 700 mayors for supporting the unauthorized vote, authorities upped the ante on Wednesday, as national police raided regional government offices, arrested 14, and seized up to 10 million ballot papers. The heavy-handed tactics have triggered large street protests in Barcelona, deepening a standoff between Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Roy, who has accused Catalan authorities of defying the rule of law, and the separatists who accuse Madrid of suppressing democracy.
The showdown has also left the EU’s leadership in an awkward spot. Backing Madrid’s line but uneasy about the optics, Brussels is trying to keep its distance, reports Reuters:
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”.
Less constrained by diplomatic protocol, other Europeans are starting to speak out: “Rajoy has put a lot of oil on the fire, fuelling the independentist debate. He has made a huge mistake,” Ska Keller, the German co-leader of the Greens in the European Parliament, told Reuters. […]
[European Commission President] Juncker also said that rich “regional traditions” should not become “elements of separatism and fragmentation of Europe”.
The EU has a fine line to walk here. Brussels wants to avoid a full-blown secession crisis, and surely wishes that Madrid could put an end to the whole thing. But images of police jailing elected officials and confiscating ballot boxes naturally stirs unease. Europe’s leaders do not want to be tainted by association with such tactics, accused of stifling the will of the people, but they also do not want to encourage the aspirations of European regional separatists, whether in Spain or elsewhere.
The EU is thus staying largely silent, sticking to the occasional anodyne statement that the European Commission cannot intervene in an internal Spanish affair, all the while working quietly with Rajoy to defuse the crisis. This may not look like political bravery, but it could lead to a gradual de-escalation. After Wednesday’s police raids, the Spanish economy minister made a conciliatory gesture, saying that Madrid was open to granting Catalonia greater financial autonomy and funding reform if it dropped the independence bid. But such offers may fall on deaf ears given the heightened tensions and regional leaders’ determination to proceed with a vote, no matter the consequences.
At a time when the EU is already consumed with Brexit divorce talks, the Catalan crisis could cause a whole new series of headaches, while exacerbating existing schisms within the Union. Hungary, for instance, recently invoked “the will of the people” to justify respecting the independence vote, in an apparent swipe at Brussels. It is easy to imagine how countries like Hungary and Poland could use the Catalan referendum as a wedge issue to attack the EU for suppressing the popular will.
Commentators have cried wolf about Catalonia before, predicting full-blown constitutional crises when the region held a non-binding referendum in 2014 or elected a host of pro-independence lawmakers in 2015. But this time could be the real deal, unless cooler heads prevail soon.