Europe wary but muted ahead of Cat­alo­nia’s in­de­pen­dence vote

The Malta Independent on Sunday - - NEWS -

Lorne Cook and An­gela Charl­ton Across Europe, peo­ple are watch­ing the in­de­pen­dence ref­er­en­dum Spain’s Cat­alo­nia region plans to hold to­day closely and ner­vously, but qui­etly.

A strong turnout that re­sults in a ma­jor­ity vote for the “yes” side could em­bolden other break­away­minded re­gions. A se­ces­sion trend on the con­ti­nent would put new strains on the Euro­pean Union and carry the po­ten­tial for un­leash­ing vi­o­lence.

Yet most Euro­pean lead­ers have shied away from tak­ing a public stand on the up­com­ing ref­er­en­dum.

De­spite ten­sions behind the scenes, they are re­luc­tant to back ei­ther the Cata­lan sep­a­ratists who are buck­ing Span­ish law to con­duct the bal­lot­ing or Prime Min­is­ter Mar­i­ano Ra­joy’s heavy-handed ef­forts to block the vote.

Here’s a look at how other Euro­pean coun­tries – and Venezuela’s out­spo­ken leader – view the sit­u­a­tion in Cat­alo­nia:

Sup­port­ing the sep­a­ratists

While the vote has not in­spired mass public ral­lies or vi­ral so­cial me­dia campaigns out­side of Spain, it did prompt small demon­stra­tions in Scot­land, where many dream of ob­tain­ing in­de­pen­dence from the UK.

Scot­tish First Min­is­ter Ni­cola Stur­geon has shown clear, if muted, sup­port for the Cat­alo­nia vote.

Stur­geon, who leads the Scot­tish Na­tional Party, called it “en­tirely le­git­i­mate for Spain to op­pose in­de­pen­dence for Cat­alo­nia“, but told law­mak­ers last week: “The right to self-de­ter­mi­na­tion is an important in­ter­na­tional prin­ci­ple, and I hope very much it will be re­spected in Cat­alo­nia, and ev­ery­where else.”

Se­ces­sion-lean­ing fig­ures in Bel­gium’s Flan­ders region see hope in to­day’s vote and sym­pa­thize with pros­per­ous Cat­alo­nia’s com­plaints that it sub­si­dizes poorer re­gions of Spain.

“I think there is al­ready a dy­namic (to­wards in­de­pen­dence around Europe). You only have to look at Scot­land. It’s an evo­lu­tion that no Euro­pean gov­ern­ment can avoid,” Jan Peu­mans, speaker of Bel­gium’s Flan­ders re­gional par­lia­ment, said.

Italy’s far-right North­ern League, which has spear­headed ref­er­en­dums for more au­ton­omy in north­ern Lom­bardy and Veneto, spoke out against the re­cent ar­rests of Cata­lan lead­ers or­dered by Spain’s gov­ern­ment.

Cat­alo­nia’s in­de­pen­dence move­ment also re­ceived un­ex­pected back­ing from Venezue­lan Pres­i­dent Ni­co­las Maduro, who re­cently won a ref­er­en­dum that con­sol­i­dated his pow­ers and has been crit­i­cized by the Ra­joy gov­ern­ment in Spain.

Con­spic­u­ous si­lence

The si­lence from the Euro­pean Union over de­vel­op­ments in largely pro-Euro­pean Cat­alo­nia has been espe­cially con­spic­u­ous since Cata­lan of­fi­cials ap­pealed to the bloc to me­di­ate the dis­pute.

In re­sponse to the region’s re­quests for in­ter­ven­tion, the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion – the EU’s ex­ec­u­tive arm – re­peated that the ref­er­en­dum was an in­ter­nal Span­ish af­fair and that it re­spected Spain’s con­sti­tu­tional or­der.

EU of­fi­cials re­fused to en­gage even as con­cerns mounted on Fri­day about post-vote vi­o­lence. “We will, as ev­ery­body else, be watch­ing events un­fold­ing,” com­mis­sion spokesman Alexan­der Win­ter­stein said.

Pri­vately, of­fi­cials are slightly more forth­com­ing about their fears.

“We are fol­low­ing the whole process with great, great con­cern,” a se­nior EU of­fi­cial said last week. The of­fi­cial briefed re­porters on con­di­tion that she was not named.

Den­mark has been non-com­mit­tal. The Faroe Is­lands and Green­land – two Dan­ish semi-au­ton­o­mous ter­ri­to­ries – have floated the idea of break­ing away. The Faroes plan to hold a ref­er­en­dum on a new con­sti­tu­tion in April.

Russia has largely ig­nored Cat­alo­nia’s vote. While some have used the vote to point out Europe’s weak­nesses, Moscow is not dis­posed to alien­ate Ra­joy’s gov­ern­ment since Spain has been one of the friendli­est coun­tries to­wards Russia since it an­nexed Crimea.

Even Ser­bia, still smart­ing from the 2008 se­ces­sion of Kosovo, has not ex­plic­itly backed the Span­ish gov­ern­ment – even though Spain is one of the five EU states that do not rec­og­nize Kosovo’s in­de­pen­dence.

Tread­ing care­fully with Ra­joy

Ra­joy has alien­ated po­ten­tial po­lit­i­cal sup­port­ers by send­ing in po­lice to block the vote. No other Euro­pean leader has come out defini­tively against the ref­er­en­dum, a likely dis­ap­point­ment to the Span­ish leader.

His clear­est back­ing came from French Pres­i­dent Em­manuel Macron, whose country has faced lowlevel break­away sen­ti­ment from Cor­sica and Basque Country in the south­west.

“I know a part­ner and a friend, which is Spain, Spain as a whole. I have an in­ter­locu­tor, he is here by my side, and his name is Mar­i­ano Ra­joy. The rest does not con­cern me,” Macron was quoted in French me­dia as say­ing at a June meet­ing with Ra­joy.

Oth­ers are tread­ing more care­fully

At an EU sum­mit in Es­to­nia on Fri­day, Lithua­nia’s Pres­i­dent Dalia Gry­bauskaite was her usual forth­right but suc­cinct self when asked about the sit­u­a­tion in Spain: “Not easy. Sen­si­tive. But we wish Spain to stay strong.” Pow­er­ful Ger­many is play­ing it safe. “We have a great interest in Spain’s sta­bil­ity be­ing main­tained,” Ger­man gov­ern­ment spokesman St­ef­fen Seib­ert told re­porters in Ber­lin.

Even one of Ra­joy’s clos­est EU al­lies, Euro­pean Par­lia­ment pres­i­dent An­to­nio Ta­jani, has re­fused to ex­plic­itly back him and instead called for more di­a­logue – sug­gest­ing Ra­joy hasn’t done enough to find a so­lu­tion.

“I think it’s important to talk on a po­lit­i­cal level after Mon­day and to re­spect laws – Cata­lan laws and Span­ish laws,” Ta­jani told re­porters on Fri­day.

He said he hoped there would be no vi­o­lence to­day. “The rules of pol­i­tics can’t be with vi­o­lence,” he said.

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