The Catalan impass: a turning point for Spain?
04 Oct 2017 - 10:51
Source: Fotomovimiento/flickr

After the attempted 'referendum' in Catalunya, protests led to a violent clash which again demonstrated the painful differences between the central government in Madrid and regional ambitions. EU expert Adriaan Schout comments on the current impasse.

The Catalan crisis is in a turning point. What mesasures do you consider necessary to overcome the impass?
"Before discussing solutions, I would rather start with another question: Are the Catalan troubles unique or are lessons to be drawn from elsewhere? Regionalisation processes are quite a common development in EU member states. 'Devolution' (a form of subsidiarity) is generally the answer. Belgium and the UK are prime examples of member states that have changed their internal relationships over the past few decades. These devolutions are not finished and we have to live with the situation that 'countries' are living things in the sense that they reorganise regularly. The opposite development is also possible: the Netherlands used to be a federation but in the hearts and minds of the Dutch we now are a unified and centralised country. Redefining relationships and devolutions are never easy and demand time. In the background we always see tensions related to different forms of nationalism and related emotions of wanting to defend the integrity of the state or wanting to have more autonomy. Not just several member states of the EU have to deal with devolution. Also the EU is a living federal arrangement. We have discussions on deeper integration, on relying more on the principle of subsidiarity and some countries want to join while the UK has opted for Brexit.

Given these dynamics within and between states, I would, more than anything else, argue that we all have to accept that states and the EU change and resemble 'living' arrangements. This happens and if it happens it is better to accept it and to deal with it than to try to resist it. The cases of the internal relations in Belgium and in the UK also saw that reforming relationships can be successful. The cases of the Netherlands and the EU underline that reforming relationships can also move in a different direction at the same time involving closer relations in some fields and more subsidiarity in others. Only through negotiations can new equilibria be found that will be supported by all involved. One lesson of European integration is that commitment to negotiations is of an importance that may not be underestimated."

Are you aware of any situation that could be seen as a precedent for the Spanish/Catalan crisis? If so, what mechanism were put in place to manage it?
"The first question to ask is in what format can parties sit together and work out agreements? In some countries, such as in relation to Northern Ireland, external involvement was necessary. At this stage, the question is first of all whether Spain itself has someone who, or an institution that, can stand above contending parties. Several, external, intermediators are already being mentioned in the international media but my first hope would be that Spain finds ways to deal with the situation itself."

Is this crisis weakening Spain in the international arena? And the pro-independence Catalans?
"Evidently, such internal frictions do not help. Spain gained considerable respect for the way in which it addressed its economic crises. Its reputation can gain even more if it finds ways to address the evident tensions it now faces."