Catalonia's independence movement creates uncertainty in E.U.

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Voters in Catalonia turned out in record numbers on September 27 in support of a growing regional aspiration: independence.[1] The winning Parliamentary coalition vowed to begin the process of secession as early as mid-October.[2] With the idea gaining greater traction in Catalonia, the region has confronted novel issues in law, economics, and its relationship with the European Union.

The desire for independence has deep roots in Catalonia. The region’s culture and distinct language, Catalan, have been intermittently suppressed throughout Spain’s history.[3] In September, a separatist coalition won a clear victory in the regional parliament with 72 out of 135 possible seats.[4] Regional President Artur Mas i Gavarró had framed the election as a de facto referendum on independence.[5] Pro-independence parties won forty-eight percent of the popular vote, while pro-union parties won just thirty-nine percent; most of the remaining votes went to a party that advocates a plebiscite to decide the issue.[6]

Will Catalonia secede?
The EU's lawyers are studying how Catalonia might become an EU member.

An earlier November 2014 consultative vote on Catalonia’s independence indicated eighty percent of Catalan voters supported independence from Spain;[7] however, Spain’s constitutional court struck down the vote on the basis that “Spanish regions do not have the right under the Spanish Constitution to call referenda on matters affecting all Spaniards.”[8] Spain has refused to engage Catalonia on the issue of independence.[9] Spain’s prime minister has not discussed independence with Catalonia’s president since 2014.[10] Furthermore, two days after the recent vote, Mas was charged with “civil disobedience, perversion of justice, embezzlement, and usurpation of power” for conducting the November 2014 independence referendum.[11]

If Catalonia becomes independent, the European Union will have to reevaluate its relationship with the newly formed nation. Whether an independent Catalonia could remain in the European Union is still unclear.[12] Although secession movements have become more commonplace, the European Union still has not developed an effective policy for dealing with an actual secession.[13]

Catalonia is in a unique position, because, as a Spanish region, it already belongs to the European Union.[14] While European and international law regulate how countries completely outside the European Union can become members, they are silent on how accession would operate for a region that is already part of a member state.[15] The two alternative approaches available to the European Union place it in a particularly sensitive predicament.[16] Many countries have tried to quell the growing tide of secessionism because of its possible ramifications.[17]  If the European Union recognized Catalonia as a state its decision could possibly affect secessionist movements in Belgium, Slovakia, Romania, and Cyprus.[18]  Consequently, how the European Union chooses to interact with Catalonia and whether it can attain membership has larger implications for its other members.[19]

Catalonia, however, remains hopeful that the member states of the European Union would be open to trade negotiations.[20] Attaining European Union membership is a major aspiration for Catalonia.[21] In talks with international European leaders and EU representatives, Catalonia concluded that the EU would take a calculated, reasoned approach if independence occurred and that automatic expulsion is highly unlikely.[22] Catalonia and regions seeking greater autonomy find solace in the European Union because it encourages democratic regional cooperation while also allowing for autonomy.[23] Catalonia has been able to assert regional autonomy and compete internationally.[24] Catalonia has asserted itself within European Union, by maintaining its own regional delegation in Brussels since 1986 and by participating in the EU’s Committee of the Regions that the Maastricht Treaty created in 1994.[25] Refusing to recognize a newly independent Catalonia would undermine the European Union’s democratic social underpinnings and negatively affect its economy.[26] Isolating Catalonia, an economic powerhouse, would cause unnecessary stress on the European market.[27]

Alternatively, some leaders in the European Commission and the European Council have opined that “European treaties would automatically cease to be applicable in the territory of a new state resulting from the division of a member state of the Union” and that such a new state would have to apply for membership.[28] These leaders believe the European Union’s position on the matter is quite clear and the possible division of a current member does not pose novel issues.[29] Yet the Commission refused to issue a formal statement in 2004 about the process for such a nation until a specific case arose and a full legal analysis done.[30]

If Catalonia were to secede without its independence being recognized by the European Union, it would remain part of the European Union.[31] The question of EU entry would not arise unless the EU recognized Catalonia as an independent state. In order to join the European Union a country must meet the so-called Copenhagen requirements:

  1. Stable institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and respect for and protection of minorities
  2. A functioning market economy and the capacity to cope with competition and market forces in the EU
  3. The ability to take on and implement effectively the obligations of membership, including adherence to the aims of political, economic and monetary union.[32]

Familiar with European law and an economic powerhouse in its own right, an independent Catalonia would be able to meet these requirements. Whether or not the European Council will approve an independent Catalonia is a question that may not be completely clear unless and until the region successfully secedes from Spain.

[1] The 27S2015 Vote, Catalonia Votes, [] (last visited Oct. 24, 2015).

[2] Hannah Strange, Catalonia elections: What next for independence campaign?, Telegraph (Sept. 28, 2015), [].

[3] Why a vote?, Catalonia Votes, [] (last visited Oct. 24, 2015).

[4] See Strange, supra note 2.

[5] Hannah Strange, Why are Catalans voting on Sunday and what does it mean for independence?, Telegraph (Sept. 26, 2015) [].

[6] See The 27S2015 Vote, supra note 1.

[7] The 9N2014 Vote , Catalonia VOTES, [] (last visited Oct. 20, 2015).

[8] Spain’s Constitutional Court Declares Catalan Preparations For November 9 Vote Unconstitutional, Spain Report (June 11, 2015), [].

[9] President Mas evaluates the Constitutional Court’s ruling against the 9N2014 vote , Catalonia Votes (June 12, 2015), [].

[10] Eric Maurice & Helena Spongenberg, Catalonia separatists on EU charm offensive, EU Observer (Oct. 16, 2015), [].

[11] Id.

[12] See Jon Yeomans, Why Catalonia’s bid for independence is Europe’s next headache, Telegraph (Sep. 10, 2015), [].

[13] Paul R. Williams et al., Earned Sovereignty Revisited: Creating a Strategic Framework for Managing Self-Determination Base Conflicts, 21 ILSA J. Int’l & Comp. L. 425, 439 (2014)

[14] Paths for Catalonia integration in the European Union, Gov’t Catalonia, 1, 8 (Oct. 2014), available at (PDF).

[15] Id.

[16] Williams, supra note 13.

[17] See id.

[18] Id.

[19] Id.

[20] Spanish banks suggest they might leave Catalonia if it becomes independent, Catalan News Agency (Sept. 18, 2015), [].

[21] Richard Gillespie, Between Accommodation and Contestation: The Political Evolution of Basque and Catalan Nationalism, 21 Nationalism and Ethnic Pol. 3, 4 (2015).

[22] Automatic expulsion from the EU of an independent Catalonia "unrealistic" say experts, Catalan News Agency (Sept. 18, 2015), [].

[23] See Esther Gimeno Ugalde, Regions and ethnonations in Europe: The particular case of Catalonia, 2 Eurolimes 51, 57 (2006).

[24] Id.

[25] Id. at 56.

[26] Williams, supra note 13.

[27] Id.

[28] Gov’t Catalonia, supra note 14 at 1, 8.

[29] See id.

[30] Id.; see also E.U. Parliament Committee on Constitutional Affairs, Minutes of January 20–21, 2014, meeting, available at (directing the body’s legal staff to analyze the procedure for an independent Scotland to join EU under the procedures of Article 48 of the Lisbon Treaty, which governs EU enlargement).

[31] Gov't Catalonia, supra note 14.

[32] Conditions for Membership, Eur. Comm’n [] (last visited Oct. 20, 2015).

Posted by Keturah T. Reed on Thu. October 29, 2015 11:04 AM
Categories: European Union, Independence movements, Spain

Comments for this post are now closed.

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