Russian President Vladimir Putin called it a “poignant case of double standards” when he noted how the European Union is turning a blind eye to Catalonia’s independence bid – in stark contrast to the bloc’s interventionist policy elsewhere.
Most notably, Putin contrasted the case of Kosovo which declared independence from Serbia in 2008. Then, the EU fervently backed Kosovo’s breakaway declaration from the Serbian republic out of deference to Washington’s policy of dismembering the former Yugoslavia.
So, evidently, the case of Kosovo is an acceptable secession according to the EU, but not it seems in the case of Catalonia.
We could also cite Crimea, although the political circumstances are very different.
Crimea held a referendum to secede from Ukraine and join the Russian Federation in March 2014 – after the elected government in Kiev was overthrown in a violent coup. The point about Crimea is this: the EU has never stopped harping on about what it says is the illegality of the Crimean referendum and Russia’s alleged nefarious destabilizing role. The EU has slapped several rounds of economic sanctions on Russia leading to a grave deterioration in relations.
Nevertheless, arguably, the Crimean referendum was constitutionally held, whereas the Kosovo secession came about following NATO military aggression towards Yugoslavia.
But despite this hyper-interventionism by the European bloc in the internal affairs of Ukraine, including the clandestine backing of the Kiev coup in February 2014, the EU leaders are strangely mute on a crisis within their own bloc regarding Spain and Catalonia.
The Spanish northeast region, centered on Barcelona, held a referendum on October 1, which in spite of a vicious police crackdown on the orders of the central government in Madrid, returned a majority vote in favor of independence.
The Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy has since rejected the referendum result out of hand and is now moving to cancel the Catalonian regional administration, headed up by Catalan president Carles Puigdemont.
Rajoy’s ruling Popular Party has shredded the Catalonian plebiscite as “illegal”, saying it violates the Spanish constitution. Rajoy has refused to countenance any negotiations with Puigdemont’s regional administration unless the referendum is repudiated – a move which would be humiliating.
The policy of Madrid amounts to heavy-handed repression. Yet that this repression is taking place within a European Union member state is a cause of much disquiet. While the EU governments bite their lips on the Catalonian matter, by contrast they seem to always jump to condemn Russia over alleged repression of minor protests organized by the dubious dissident Alexei Navalny.
Admittedly, the Catalonian issue is weighed with complicated legal argument. It is arguable that the Catalans are acting outside of the constitution by unilaterally holding the referendum. Pro-independence Catalans would counter that their hand was forced owing to years of reluctant attitude in Madrid to address their separatist aspirations. There is also a substantial electorate in Catalonia which is against independence from the rest of Spain.
However, what is instructive here is the expedient stance taken by the EU towards the Spanish-Catalonian dispute. When Mariano Rajoy attended the EU annual summit before the weekend, he was roundly greeted by other leaders who closed ranks in support.
As a Reuters report headlined: “Catalonia finds no friends among EU leaders”.
French President Manuel Macron said it was an internal private matter for Spain and expressed “unity” with Premier Rajoy. German Chancellor Angela Merkel stressed that the confrontation must be resolved “within the constitution” of the Spanish state – thus delegitimizing the Catalonia referendum, as per Madrid’s position.
“It’s an internal Spanish matter,” reiterated Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte.
Reuters also quoted a senior EU diplomat, who revealed the cynical calculus being made by the various government leaders, by saying: “There is not much to gain from backing Barcelona and a lot to lose from angering Madrid.”
It was perhaps the equivocating European Council President Donald Tusk who took the prize for shallow expedience.
“It is not on our agenda,” said Tusk to media reporters. “All of us have our own emotions, opinions, assessments but formally speaking there is no space for an EU intervention [in the Spanish-Catalonian dispute].”
Of course, the tacit concern here is that the EU does not want to exacerbate separatist movements elsewhere across the 28-member union. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker admitted that Catalonia could be a “domino effect”, providing precedent for further secessionist calls within Belgium, Italy and Scotland.
Furthermore, if Brussels were to mediate in Spain it could find itself accused of interfering in sovereign affairs, thereby adding fuel to populist and Eurosceptic parties that have emerged like a hot rash across Europe, from the Netherlands, Denmark, France, Germany, Poland, to Hungary and lately in Austria and Czech Republic with Sebastian Kurz and Andrej Babis, respectively.
Politically, the agnostic view of the EU toward the Catalonian question might be understandable based on vested interests of European governments. But where is the principle in that position?
By ignoring the issue, the EU leaves itself open to criticism of being unscrupulous and of peddling double standards. After all, the bloc’s foundational principles state that it shows “solidarity” with the democratic rights of minority groups within the union.
Speaking at the Valdai discussion forum in Sochi this week, Putin not only pointed out the glaring hypocrisy and double standards of the EU with regard to Catalonia and Kosovo. He also said that the EU’s meddling in the internal affairs of Serbia back in 2008 served to unleash the politics of separatism across Europe – that has come back to haunt Brussels.
At a time when EU leaders are struggling to maintain political and moral authority in the eyes of their electorates, their self-serving and cowardly pandering toward Madrid over Catalonia is another grievous blow to their image.
All the self-righteous declarations by European governments about democratic principles is seen to be little more than idle rhetoric that can be discarded at any moment if it is expedient to do so.