Secessionism and the EU: Drawing from the Case of Catalonia

Politics - December 21, 2022

The unprecedented threats that the EU currently faces on its eastern front as Russia continues its aggression in Ukraine should not divert our attention from the potential dangers that the Union faces from within its borders. One such threat is the emergence of secessionist movements that may potentially disintegrate some of its member States. Indeed, this is the focus of a recently-released ECR report: in light of recent events concerning the Spanish region of Catalonia, the authors—Antonio Sáinz de Vicuña y Barroso, former general Counsel of the European Central Bank, and Julio Pomés Ruiz, a lawyer and activist—elaborate on the legal issues that the independence of a region within an EU State would raise.

The case of Catalonia is, in a sense, an obvious one. We all recall the dramatic events of just a few years ago, which culminated with then Catalonia President Carles Puigdemont and a number of his closest aides escaping to Brussels and elsewhere in Europe. Independentism is not just a feature of Catalonia, however. It is present, if latent, in several other regions of the EU. It leverages on identity, often linguistic, such as a specific idiom spoken in a particular region, which sets that region apart. For instance, in Italy there is a German-speaking community in South Tirol, close to the border with Austria where this is the case. At times there have been similar instances of independentism in other northern, and southern, regions of the country.

There is nothing wrong with nurturing a regional identity. Indeed, the broader European project should be perfectly consistent with, and even build on, various local identities. At the same time, the EU—and its institutions—should never interfere with such domestic policy debates in a manner that could be perceived as conveying some implicit endorsement. The goal of the EU is rather to build a prosperous and peaceful community and, to the extent it is successful in doing so, that will contribute to defuse a threat that could jeopardize our community from the inside.

The ECR report underscores an area that is typically overlooked: namely, independent leaders should make the actual implications of EU membership known to would-be independent regions within our Union. This is because EU membership of a region becoming an independent state should not be taken for granted. In the case of Catalonia, for instance, Spain would almost certainly veto its joining the EU and, in any case, it would take several years for a would-be State of Catalonia to comply with the acquis communautaire that are expected of new members.

In the meantime, investments would collapse, let alone the new currency that obviously would not be the euro. Trade with Spain would likely be severed, and that with other EU economies would be severely curtailed due to tariffs and other barriers that an independent Catalonia, as a third state, would inevitably face. Indeed, awareness of those potentially significant costs were missing in the case laid out by the former regional leaders of Catalonia. Along similar lines, NATO membership should not be taken for granted and thus the external security of an independent Catalonia would squarely fall on the shoulders of its citizens. This too was missing in the debate.

In Italy, the Government led by Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, who is also ECR President, intends to modernize and strengthen the State institutions while providing more autonomy to the country’s 20 different regions. Let us wish her well in such an important endeavor, because in a large, prosperous and rule-based EU, local identities should not feel threatened but welcomed.

It is up to all of us to fight populist and self-serving narratives with all the rational—and legal—means possible.