The relative silence in the case of Catalonia in recent weeks should not hide the fact that the crisis in the Spanish state is far from over. A way out of the crisis can only be found through mediation, which addresses the financial resources of the region and options for more autonomy.
In Spain, financial issues are organized federally. Spanish federalism is an asymmetric federalism with different competences for the regions. The central government governs the financial compensation between strong and weak regions in an opaque way. In 2006, the central social democratic government aimed to reform the compensation mechanism together with the establishment of a new Statute of Autonomy for Catalonia. However, the conservative opposition of the Partido Popular under the leadership of Rajoy overturned large parts of the statute in 2010 and thus also the financial autonomy with the help of the constitutional court. This resulted in the degradation of Catalonia from one of the strongest regions in the Spanish state to the lowest ranks. At least the financial part of the conflict of interests seems solvable. Solutions could vary from a more favorable redistribution to a statute of financial autonomy as it is the case in the Basque Country and Navarre.
The political demands for greater autonomy and recognition as a nation in the Spanish state are much more difficult to solve as they represent a conflict of values. The conflict stems from negative experiences with the Franco dictatorship and the transition to democracy. In addition to the suppression of language and culture, this applies above all to the power of the central state and its enforcement by the military and the Guardia Civil. The existing Statute of Autonomy of Catalonia has been shaped by this central power. The now cited article 155 was established in the constitution after pressure from the military in 1978. Applying this article for the first time since the emergence of Spanish democracy to accuse Catalan government members of rebellion does not contribute to conflict resolution. Nor is it helpful to demonstrate central power in the federal state. A solution for the conflict could lie in the drafting of a new Statute of Autonomy. The solution of 2006 could be a starting point for new negotiations.
Someone needs to convince the two counterparts - Central Government and Catalonia – to enter into a negotiation process. So far, the EU rejects such a role, referring to the non-interference principle. However, during the financial crisis the EU undermined this principle several times. The various policy instruments connected to rescue packages intervened heavily in Spanish domestic policies, with no basis in primary law. Moreover, mediation is not the same as interference. The EU has experience as a mediator in major conflicts such as the conflict between Ukraine and Russia. She has also played a crucial role in pacifying the Northern Ireland conflict over the last decade. That is exactly what the EU should do again. For it cannot be in the EU's interest to allow another regional source of long-term conflict. The EU must make it clear that such conflicts need to be resolved in consensus between central government and the region. If the EU is not successful, there will be a new wave of regional aspirations for more autonomy - similar to the development in the 1990s connected to the "Europe of the Regions" concept. At that time, the EU was able to channel and absorb demands through the establishment the Committee of the Regions. But this committee has only a consultative function and a development into a fully-fledged decision-making body is not on the agenda. But how can the EU solve the renewed discussions in northern Italy or the upcoming uncertainties in Northern Ireland after Brexit, if not in dialogue? It is high time that the EU takes a stand and actively offers support as a mediator. Silence will encourage conflict and promote disintegration.
A German version of this article has been published in the Frankfurter Rundschau on December 6, 2017.
Prof. Dr. Michèle Knodt – Technische Universität Darmstadt
Prof. Dr. Michèle Knodt is Director of CEDI and professor for Comparative Politics and European Integration at TU Darmstadt. She holds a Jean Monnet chair ad personam.