EU still unmoved by Spain's standoff with Catalan separatists

European leaders maintain their position that independence drive is strictly a matter for Madrid

A European arrest warrant issued for five former Catalan ministers is stirring nationalist feelings around the continent but looks unlikely to change the EU’s settled view of the separatists’ standoff with the Spanish government.

The arrest of the former Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont in Germany on Sunday, and the decision by his former education minister, Clara Ponsatí, to turn herself in to Scottish police on Wednesday, may be diplomatically delicate.

But despite protests from German leftwingers and Scottish, Spanish and Belgian nationalists, Europe’s leaders show little sign of budging from their position that Catalonia’s independence drive must remain strictly a matter for Madrid.

The Spanish case against Puigdemont and other members of his former government who fled abroad – besides Ponsatí in Scotland, three are currently in Belgium and two in Switzerland – is therefore a judicial, not a political, question, they believe.

“Spain is a democracy, where the rule of law exists,” Angela Merkel’s spokesman said after Puigdemont was detained near the Danish border on his way from Finland to Brussels, where he had been in self-imposed exile since late October.

Catalan leaders in exile

Others are not so sure. Germany’s far-left Die Linke party called Puigdemont’s arrest a disgrace, arguing – in the words of the its European affairs spokesman, Andrej Hunko, that the criminal case “is clearly politically motivated”.

In Scotland, the SNP MP Angus MacNeil said the Scottish police should not be “doing the political work of the fascists” in the Spanish government, while in Spain, the Basque nationalist MP Izaskun Bilbao demanded urgent EU action on Spain’s “territorial problems”.

Mark Demesmaeker, an MEP from the New Flemish Alliance, which seeks the secession of Flanders from Belgium, said Madrid was “escalating the repression. Democracy is in crisis, dialogue has been denied. The EU must open its eyes and facilitate political dialogue.”

The SNP’s parliamentary leader in Westminster, Ian Blackford, wrote to the Spanish ambassador to London to say his country’s pursuit of the separatist politicians “goes against the principle of democracy and of respect for human rights, and risks people’s basic civil liberties”.

The former Catalan leaders – who argue Spain is authoritarian, the case against them is political and that as elected politicians they had a democratic mandate to push for regional independence – are wanted on charges ranging from rebellion to misuse of public funds for organising last October’s independence referendum, which Spain’s top court ruled was unconstitutional.

The charge of rebellion, which carries a maximum sentence of 30 years in prison, is questioned by some Spanish legal experts since it requires evidence of a “violent uprising” and could be hard to prove in court. Few European countries have a direct equivalent for it, which may also prove an obstacle to extradition.

A man wrapped in the Catalan flag faces a riot police officer during a protest in Barcelona over the arrest of Carles Puigdemont.
A man wrapped in the Catalan flag faces a riot police officer during a protest in Barcelona over the arrest of Carles Puigdemont. Photograph: Alejandro Garcia/EPA

The EU, already dealing with Brexit, the fallout from Italy’s elections and growing tensions with its eastern members, has little appetite for any formal intervention. Under the Lisbon treaty it is in any case bound to respect the “essential state functions, including ensuring the territorial integrity” of member states.

While Brussels is tussling with rightwing, populist governments in Poland and Hungary over the rule of law and fundamental democratic values, Spain – despite Madrid’s forceful, sometimes violent, attempt to disrupt the referendum – is seen as a country that respects its judiciary and can resolve its own political conflicts.

The bloc, which views itself above all as a members’ club, is also concerned that recognising the outcome of an illegal referendum would set a precedent for other regions with aspirations to independence, such as Flanders, Lombardy and Corsica.

Many believe the EU could offer behind-the-scenes mediation, and that Madrid might benefit from being told, informally, that it is not really helping itself by tackling Catalonia’s unrealistic drive for independence as it would high treason.

But few member state governments see any benefit in either angering Madrid or encouraging secessionists. Their stance is unchanged since Donald Tusk, the European council president, said last year: “It is not on our agenda. All of us have our opinions, but formally speaking there is no space for an EU intervention.”


Jon Henley European affairs correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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