By Vicent Partal
The “Anglosphere”, Russia and China examine the opportunities offered by a Catalonia outside the EU
The Catalan self-determination referendum to be held on Sunday is a crucial political event not only for the Spanish State but also for the entire European Union. That also makes it a global event and the major powers are watching it with particular interest hoping that an unexpected turn of events might work in their favour.
Initially, the referendum has a limited geopolitical significance. Catalonia has confirmed its pro-European position and only the most far left minority is considering the possibility of the Republic not being a member of the European Union or, at least, of the European Economic Area by way of EFTA. Nevertheless, it is evident that the independence process is being a strain on the EU and creates institutional difficulties which have a particular interest for the two blocks with grievances with Brussels, the “Anglosphere” (particularly the US and the UK) and Russia. Further afield, but having very specific interests, China is also paying a great deal of attention to what is going on, in case an unexpected opportunity arises.
The European Union could be considerably weakened
A key element to understand what is going on are the problems the EU may have if Catalonia secedes and Spain reacts as badly as it has thus far.
On the one hand, the repression is already intolerable. It has gone way farther than the EU can accept without it rebounding on them. The scene of the Commission spokesperson set upon by the indignant press in Brussels as they compared the events in Catalonia with those in Turkey and decried the “double standard” applied by the European Union regarding civil freedom is a boon for any country currently being pressured by the EU. How long will it take Erdogan to use the arguments put forward by the English, German, Italian press? and what a problem for the credibility of Brussels? The fact that Rajoy has not even dared to attend the Tallinn summit is good proof of that.
Furthermore, the European Union has a very big and very important problem: it has to settle Catalonia’s position quickly. After proclaiming independence, the institutional instability within the EU and the havoc, especially in Spain’s economy, will not be sustainable for long. Europe will have to take a decision, fast. As things stand, it will have to be a decision that Spain will not like at all, because the EU cannot allow Catalonia to be left out. It cannot allow it because losing London and Barcelona within the space of two years would be a great blow to its international credibility and because the economic turbulence a crisis of this order would generate would be huge.
However, the solution for Europe is not simple. The Treaties do not stipulate what is to be done in the case of a part of a state seceding. Therefore, there is no legal route that needs be followed. The solution in this case can only be political; but this means that either Catalonia is left out, or Spain’s pride is wounded and is politically disregarded by accepting the new state into the fold. It is a very complicated decision, especially in view of the geopolitical ramifications: who is expectant for Brussels’ error?
The “Anglosphere” in search of a key ally on the Continent
The “Anglosphere” is the first line of interest. Especially the strategic alliance of the UK and the US reinforced after Brexit. Brussels has taken good not of how understanding both the United States and the United Kingdom are with Catalonia. Rajoy was subjected to it personally in Washington. The United States’ diplomatic recognition of Catalonia does not depend on the whim of the President. The potent machinery of the State Department has much to say and three consecutive statements by the Department of State tending towards recognizing the result of the referendum are more than significant.
Meanwhile, the Unite Kingdom is one of the most active official defenders of the Catalan right to decide, especially Parliament. There is of course the underlying Gibraltar issue and wanting to return Spain’s constant attempts at humiliation, but the geopolitical context is also very important. The United Kingdom needs a new place in the world outside the European Union. The role as a bridge between the US and the EU was valid while the UK was still in the EU. Now that the UK is no longer in the EU, the Anglosphere has to aspire to being strong in its own right and attract countries to an area which will have to compete, at least commercially, with the EU. The Catalan opportunity, in this regard, is very attractive. A London-Barcelona link, well connected across the Atlantic, which could attract the EFTA countries, especially Switzerland, which keeps drifting further and further from the Union, would mean a shift in the design of the Continent and would give rise to number of problems for Brussels, no longer the only actor on the European scene.
Russia forever prowling
Competition from the Angloshpere is beginning to worry Brussels, but in the end, it would only mean healthy competition among allies. The prospect of Catalonia getting closer to Russia or, especially China if left out of the EU after independence is a real nightmare for European strategists.
The fact that, despite Europe’s attitude, Catalonia has consistently rejected any “liaison dangereuse” especially with Russia, paradoxically reassures Brussels. But the scenario of what might happen if Catalonia were forced to abandon the EU due to Spain’s intransigence and Russia or China were to take advantage sends shivers through Brussels.
Russia particularly is being watched due to Machiavellian interpretations by certain media as to the role of Julian Assange. Many observers see a connection, though not very substantiated, with the Kremlin. And a rather simplistic explanation for his evident interest in the case of the Catalans is that Putin is behind it.
This is not true, but it is true that Russia has avoided taking a stance on the Catalan issue and also that it is in Russia’s interest that the European Union be weakened. What is more, if the European Union does not give an easy solution to the situation, Russia would have an opportunity to manoeuvre towards two significant aggressions: the case of the diplomatic recognition of Kosovo and the non-recognition of the annexation of Crimea. If the Catalan issue was not solved quickly, this would be a sign to the Kremlin, which would undoubtedly be used. And they would make use of the ongoing repression becoming evident, as is Venezuela already.
And China, poised for the new Silk Road
The possibility of a Russian interest in Catalonia certainly worries Brussels; but a potential Chinese interest worries them even more. In this case, the, let’s say, ideological component is not the problem for Brussels. The threat for trade is much more serious and significant, so much so that certain observers believe that the EU would never allow Catalonia to get away; the Ports of Barcelona and Tarragona at the service of a Chines trade strategy would be the greatest problem the EU would have to face in the next few years.
The Chinese government has put in place the so-called New Silk Road, an extremely ambitious project intended to reshape world trade in accordance with Beijing’s interests. The initiative is designed to change the economic structure globally and is already having an impact on Asia and Africa. For the time being, the impact on Europe is limited, precisely due to the European Union. So China has only managed to insert the project in parts of the Balkans, especially Serbia, and has found some leeway in Greece, who are very far from what is expected and needed. An independent Catalonia and its ports in Barcelona and Tarragona outside the EU would be a gift indeed for the Chinese; and this would be a nightmare for the European Union.
The Mediterranean, Morocco, Turkey…
The prospect of any of these three blocks taking advantage of the referendum and making trouble for the European Union puts Brussels in a difficult position and creates problems for Spain because of Spain’s intransigence. This is why everyone rules out Catalonia being left outside the EU and a process for Catalonia to join is openly debated. This process would be expedient and easy because it is already part of the EU and only certain very visible, but actually quite minor, political issues will need negotiating. Spanish Premier Rajoy’s absence at the EU summit in Tallinn starting today is very significant in this regard. Especially because the European Union’s feeling of unease with repression. Rajoy has set up a repressive movement which is unacceptable for the majority of the major partners and leaders in the EU. Especially after the Scottish example. Everyone in Brussels is comparing the relative ease with which the Scottish conflict was dealt with and the mire that the repression in Spain is dragging the European Union into. This repression forces the EU to act if they don’t want to lose all credibility as a leader of human rights before the world, a position European diplomacy has been striving after for a long time.
Especially in the Mediterranean. Images of the Spanish State repressing the right to vote of the Catalans, closing down websites and menacing newspapers, putting politicians in cufflinks for exerting their commitments and persecuting mayors is very damaging to the European Union. There is no doubt that countries like Turkey will use it at their convenience to attack European hypocrisy each time Brussels protests at Kurdish mayors being arrested or newspapers being closed down in Istanbul.
Likewise, though not as intensely, Brussels is worried at the repercussions of the Catalan crisis on the southern bank of the Mediterranean, particularly in Morocco, where Spain’s apparent weakness might be used to bring up the territorial aspiration regarding Ceuta and Melilla to the international scene.
All these major questions are being debated in Brussels where everyone acknowledges, however quietly, that they do not know what will happen in the end, but that whatever happens, a solution needs to be found very quickly to stop new turmoil for an already beleaguered European Union.