The EU is politically and intellectually unprepared for a crisis in Spain. The European project is based on the idea that the EU is a “safe space” for liberal values. Once a country enters the club it is assumed to leave old conflicts, whether internal or external, outside the door.
The EU’s belief in the peaceful resolution of disputes is fundamental, and is underpinned by basic commitments to democracy, the rule of law and market economics. Questions of national sovereignty are also meant to lose their urgency inside the EU, where decisions are said to be made at whatever is the appropriate level — regional, national or European.
But what if all that is not true? Catalonia’s bid for independence demonstrates that traditional questions of nationhood and sovereignty can still stir the blood in modern Europe. There is also a possibility that the crisis could lead to violence between the Spanish central government and pro-independence forces in Catalonia. That would challenge Spain’s traditional status as a prime example of the benefits of the European project.
Spain joined the EU in 1986, 11 years after the death of the dictator Francisco Franco, and almost 30 years after the launch of the European Economic Community in 1957. Ever since, it has been axiomatic in both Brussels and Madrid that Spain’s transitions from dictatorship to democracy, from isolation to internationalism and from poverty to prosperity, were intimately connected to its decision to join the EU.
But if the Spanish state enters a prolonged and dangerous crisis, then this happy story will be threatened by an unexpected twist in the plot. The EU’s self-image as the guarantor of peace and stability within Europe would also be undermined. For that reason, the current situation in Spain could ultimately represent an even bigger challenge to the EU than Brexit.
For the moment, however, the EU seems to have little option but to watch impotently from the sidelines. At the recent meeting of the European Council, which brings together the heads of government of the 28 EU nations, Angela Merkel attempted to start a discussion on Catalonia. But the German chancellor was brushed off by Mariano Rajoy, Spain’s prime minister, and none of the other leaders was inclined to press the point.
The incident underlined the fact that — despite the accusations of its British critics — the EU is not the enemy of Europe’s nations. On the contrary, it is a club of nation-states. Spain, unlike Catalonia, is a member of the club, with a seat at the table in the key EU institutions. So while several European leaders have private misgivings about the Spanish government’s handling of the crisis, regarding it as heavy handed, they are reluctant to express their concerns publicly. Some of the other nations around the table, notably Belgium and Italy, also fear encouraging their own separatist movements.
The EU has also had its fill of confidence-sapping crises over the past five years. After the euro crisis and the shock of Brexit, the European project can ill-afford yet another existential challenge in Spain.
Until the Spanish crisis boiled over, the Berlin-Brussels-Paris network that dominates EU thinking was having a pretty good 2017. The key event was the victory of Emmanuel Macron in the French presidential election in May. This simultaneously represented a defeat for populism in Europe, bolstered EU unity on Brexit and held out the promise of a Macron-Merkel deal to relaunch Europe.
For the EU elite, the overriding challenge now is to seize the opportunity of the Macron presidency and to reinvigorate the European project through a renewed Franco-German partnership. This prospect dominates the thinking of the cadre of EU experts, as I discovered at a conference in Berlin last week. There were hours devoted to careful discussion of the possibilities of a Franco-German deal. By contrast, the crisis in Spain was hardly mentioned. Nor was there much discussion of the spread of populism across central Europe, with recent elections in both the Czech Republic and Austria boosting the fortunes of Eurosceptic parties.
The issues at the heart of the Franco-German relationship are important and complex. But they are also a kind of comfort blanket, because the contours of the debate are so familiar. The Catalonia crisis is different. It raises issues that most EU specialists simply do not know how to deal with. The same is true of the rise of anti-democratic populism in eastern Europe. And there could be further, similar, challenges to come. Elections in Italy early next year could easily see further gains for populist and Eurosceptic parties.
In their different ways, Spain, Britain, Italy, Poland, Greece and most of central Europe are all now deviating dramatically from what used to be the European norm. At this point only the Nordic countries, Ireland, Benelux and the big two of France and Germany look like a “safe space” for the European project. The question for the EU elite is whether a relaunch of the Franco-German partnership is the indispensable step needed to save the European project — or an introspective evasion of other, more troubling, problems.
Europe’s leaders would like to ignore the crisis in Spain. But the Spanish crisis may not ignore them.
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