The EU and Catalonia: The Bigger Picture

 /  Nov. 19, 2017, 3:11 p.m.

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On October 1, streets across Catalonia were filled with protesters and police alike; a disputed referendum was clearly showing the divide between the Spanish government and the northeastern region. The results of the referendum looked promising: by the following morning, 90 percent of the votes that had been counted were in support of Catalonian independence. The response from Madrid, however, was less than friendly. And as media of police attacking voters was shown across the globe, another governing body remained silent.

The European Union, Spain, and Catalonia

The European Union (EU) has long been representative of a united Europe, providing a legislative basis for member-states to participate in and create shared values across the continent.

This questions the authority that the EU has over member-state matters, especially in this specific referendum.

In a press conference months prior the chief of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, stated, “If the ‘yes’ vote for the independence in Catalonia, saw the light, well, we would respect that choice.” The following day, however, the commission issued a restatement clarifying that the referendum would have to be legally sanctioned by the Spanish government. The Spanish constitution directly prohibits secession through Article I by declaring that sovereignty is a national matter, and the Spanish government would never endorse the independence movements of any Spanish region.

Nevertheless, if the European Commission had in fact given support for the vote, many challenges would have arisen for Catalonia. One obstacle that the region would have faced if it declared independence would have been its EU membership. While the official charter of the EU does not directly address seceding regions within member states, the European Commission has relied on the Prodi Doctrine in order to address these scenarios. The Prodi Doctrine, a 2004 doctrine based off of the ideas of Romano Prodi, the former president of the European Commission, states that a seceding region renounces EU membership and must reapply to be an EU member state. In order to remain a member state of the EU as an independent Catalonia, the independent republic would be required to reapply for membership. Not only does the application process take several years, it also requires that there be a unanimous decision for approval. Spain would very likely deny the request because of its dependence on Catalonia for both economic and political stability. Catalonia accounts for 20 percent of the Spanish GDP, has a lower unemployment rate than the rest of the country, and has an extraordinary amount of investment. The Spanish constitution has also maintained a firm grip on controlling Catalonia, and a successful secession would weaken the principles established by the Spanish government.

After the results

In response to the commission’s regress on what had at first seemed like supportive statements, Catalan leaders criticized the alleged hypocrisy of the EU. It was a matter of whether or not the guaranteed fundamental rights of the EU were applicable to autonomous states within member countries. According to figureheads of the Catalan independence movement, the EU was vocally against what they considered to be a peaceful, democratic secession. For the EU, the vote was destructive towards the stability that Spain seemed to have.

One major concern among the EU and other European leaders is the economic ramifications of the referendum, which would affect the stability of the Spanish economy, one of the larger economies in the EU; Catalonia is the most industrial among Spanish regions, so much is at stake with the possible secession. As the EU faces continual pressure from Brexit negotiations, the complexity of a possible Catalan secession would only continue to call the value of a unified Europe into question. This secession, like Brexit, would only add to the populist movement that continues to sweep across Europe. One week after the results of the referendum were published it had been reported that Juncker and Angela Merkel spoke to discuss, in part, the political troubles that Spain has been experiencing. The Spanish Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, has also taken calls of support from figures such as Emmanuel Macron, indicating a very pro-EU stance among major European leaders.


Without support from the EU, the likelihood of the referendum going into effect is slim. What this referendum has done is to emphasize the ripple effect that can occur throughout the rest of the European Union and how fearful the commission was of its consequences. An independent Catalonia could possibly encourage other autonomous regions in various countries to separate and undermine the unity that the EU attempts to embody. This is considered a heavy threat especially because of the trend of rising nationalism across the continent; the migrant crisis and slow economic growth were among many issues that resulted in a popularity increase in right-wing parties. For now, the EU is encouraging dialogue between Catalonia and Madrid. The talks with the Spanish government could easily be interpreted as forceful threats. In order for any dialogue to be successful, the Spanish government must attempt to represent the 2.3 million Catalans that headed to polls on October 1. The differences between the two regions go beyond economic disparities, however; cultural characteristics such as language, history, and traditions make the conflict between Spain and Catalonia more complicated than struggles for independence. With the current tension between the Spanish government and the dissolution of the Catalan parliament, resolving and peacefully unifying Spain would be a difficult, if not impossible task to accomplish.

Andrea Ochoa is a Contributing Writer for The Gate. The image featured in this article is licensed under the Creative Commons.

Andrea Ochoa


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