Flirting with Europe: why Catalonia should play hard-to-get with the EU

In Catalonia, one of the main concerns about a post-independence future is  whether the country would retain its membership of the EU. Madrid has suggested that Catalonia would have to ‘go to the back of the queue’ of candidate countries, and the threat of a Spanish veto to Catalan accession is ever-present. Such is the preoccupation with this question that the European status of a Catalan state is often defended at the same time that its very existence is being fought for; the slogan of last September’s independence rally was Catalunya, Nou Estat d’Europa (Catalonia, New European State).spain-catalan-independence-jpeg13-1280x960

But with Spain crippled by debt and political scandal, and the EU experiencing an almost existential crisis, Catalonia needs to bring an end to its discourse of doubt and express confidence in the value it brings to the Union. By changing the way it talks about the EU, Catalonia could greatly strengthen its negotiating position regarding its membership of the club.

In terms of the rules, all bets are off when it comes to the status of a newly independent Catalonia, (or Scotland, or Flanders). There is no pre-established framework for dealing with states which were previously part of other Member States. This means that the actors involved will be guided by self-interest, political expediency, and practicality. Spain may threaten a veto, but as a bailed-out country, it’s hardly in a position to give orders to Merkel, Van Rompuy et. al.

Is a Catalan exit in the interest of the EU? Absolutely not. With the enlargement process stalled and the UK threatening exit, the last thing the EU wants is to lose territory, least of all a country like Catalonia, which has deeply-rooted liberal democratic values and shares a border with France. Catalonia is not Greece, an economic deadweight, or Ukraine, ruled by a corrupt oligarchy, and its leaders should talk about its European future with a confidence that reflects this.

Talking Europe:

There are three main ways which European countries define and talk about their relationship with Europe (more on this in a post I wrote last year while I was working in Luxembourg).

  • The first type of talk, often found in the UK and Denmark, could be described as a ‘lucky to have us’ discourse. It reflects the attitude that EU institutions and policies are negotiable, and that national interest comes before European solidarity. Debates consist of an active questioning of subjects such as the Euro, Schengen, and even EU membership itself.
  • The second type of talk, dominant in countries such as France, Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg, is a ‘we are Europe’ discourse. These countries don’t doubt their European status, after all, it is they who have defined the scope and goals of the entire post-war European project. They are more concerned with talking about how to implement and promote the institutions’ core values.
  • Finally, there is sometimes a doubting style of talk in candidate countries and the newest Member States. This ‘discourse of doubt’ expresses a near unconditional admiration for EU institutions, along with an anxiety about when and how accession criteria can be met. In fact, in the wake of the Eurozone crisis, this kind of talk is increasingly rare, as membership of the EU is no longer seen as a guarantee of security or prosperity. Countries such as Iceland and Turkey have been negotiating their accessions with a healthy scepticism, carefully weighing up the costs and benefits of membership, and vigorously negotiating to defend their national interest (e.g. on fisheries policy in the case of Iceland).

At the moment, though popular debates in Catalonia often get caught up in the discourse of ‘doubt’, official government statements wisely aim to situate Catalonia among the ‘we are Europe’ crowd.  Official statements stress Catalonia’s democratic pedigree and commitment to the European cause.

However, adding a pinch of ‘lucky to have us’ could shift the terms of debate in Catalonia’s favour. Playing ‘hard-to-get’ can be a great strategy to change the power balance in any relationship, be it personal or political. By establishing that Catalonia expects membership but does not fear losing it, and raising the issue of further policy goals, the country’s leaders can turn the tables and have the EU chasing them instead.

Here are some examples of statements that would have this effect:

Raise issues for renegotiation

“We greatly value our membership of the EU and are broadly satisfied with the relationship we have had with Brussels over the past 30 years. However, it is to be expected that as an independent Member State we will want to hold talks on some of the issues which have not been adequately dealt with by Madrid on our behalf, for example, the status of Catalan as a language of the EU.”

Mention alternatives

“Catalonia has formed part of the EU since 1986, and consequently already meets (and often exceeds) the Copenhagen criteria for membership. Our aim is to continue as a new independent Member State. However, the example of Switzerland gives us confidence that there are viable alternatives if we were obliged to renegotiate the terms of the relationship.”

Keep them guessing

“Catalonia has always been outward-looking and placed a strong emphasis on its economic and political ties with the international community. As an independent country, we would be open to discussions with both bilateral partners and regional and international organizations, in order to discuss how we can best work together in the future for our mutual benefit.”

With messages like these, Catalonia would be taking charge and defining the terms of debate with Europe, establishing a strong position from which to make its case for a fast-tracked accession.


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