4 de setembre del 2017

The geopolitics of Catalan secession

The Anglo-sphere, Russia, and China are closely watching for any opportunity arising from a Catalonia outside the EU 

The referendum on Catalan self-determination that will be held on Sunday is a key political event not only for Spain, but also for the whole of the European Union. It has also become a global event, so the great powers are watching with particular interest, hoping that an unexpected turn of events could play in their favor.

At first glance, the referendum has a limited geopolitical scope. Catalonia has reaffirmed its pro-Europe nature, and only the smallest of the fringe left groups have proposed that the Republic not become part of the European Union, or perhaps that it joins the European Economic Area via the EFTA (European Free Trade Association). Nevertheless, it is clear that the pro-independence process has raised tensions within the EU and created an institutional difficulty that is particularly interesting to two of the blocs that have outstanding issues with Brussels — the Anglo-sphere (the United States and the United Kingdom, in particular) and Russia. Farther afield, but with very specific interests, is China, which is watching developments with great interest, in case an unexpected opportunity presents itself.

The European Union could be very much weakened
A key element to understanding what is happening are the problems that the European Union could face if Catalonia becomes independent and Spain reacts as badly as they have up to now.

On one hand, Madrid’s repression is already intolerable. It greatly exceeds what the EU can accept without taking a toll. The scene of the Commission spokesman in Brussels besieged by journalists indignantly comparing the events in Catalonia to those in Turkey, and denouncing Europe’s “double standard” in regard to civil liberties is a gift for any country that could be pressured by the EU. How long will it be before Erdogan makes use of the arguments raised by journalists from England, Germany, Italy …? And what credibility problems will this create for Brussels? The fact that Rajoy won’t even dare to attend the summit in Tallin is a good indicator.

The European Union also has a greater, more pressing problem: how to resolve Catalonia’s new position quickly. After a proclamation of independence, the institutional instability that would be created within the EU and the ensuing lack of control, especially in the Spanish economy, cannot be sustained for very long. Europe will have to make a rapid decision. And with the way things stand, it will have to be a decision that will not sit well with Spain, because the EU cannot allow Catalonia to be left out in the cold. It cannot allow that because to lose London and Barcelona in two years would be a serious blow to its international credibility, and because the economic turmoil that a crisis of this dimension would generate would be enormous.

However, for Europe the solution is not so straightforward. Existing treaties do not define what must be done if a part of an existing member state secedes. Thus, there is no legal precedent that could provide direction. The solution, therefore, can only be political, but this would imply that either Catalonia is left out of the EU or Spanish pride is hurt and it is demeaned politically with the acceptance of a new Catalan member state. The decision is very complex, especially taking into account the geopolitical ramifications: who is hoping Brussels to err?

The Anglo-sphere in search of a key ally on the continent

The Anglo-sphere is the first line of interest, especially the strategic alliance between the United Kingdom and the United States, strengthened by Brexit. The understanding that both the United States and the United Kingdom have shown in their treatment of Catalonia has been duly noted in Brussels. Rajoy experienced this firsthand in Washington. In the US, diplomatic recognition doesn’t depend on the whim of the president. The powerful machinery of the State Department and Congress has a lot to say on the matter, and considering this, the three consecutive positions voiced by the State Department regarding recognition of the result of the referendum are more than significant.

Meanwhile, the UK is one of the most active countries in the official defense of Catalonia’s right to decide, particularly in Parliament. It is clear that the issue of Gibraltar lurks in the background, and a desire to answer the constant humiliations from Spain, but the geopolitical context also weighs heavily. The United Kingdom must find a new place in the world, outside of the European Union. The role of bridge between the United States and the EU made sense when the UK was in the EU. With the UK outside the EU, the Anglo-sphere has to become stronger by itself and attract countries towards a space that will have to compete, at least commercially, with the EU. The Catalan opportunity, in this sense, is very attractive. An axis between London and Barcelona with strong trans-Atlantic connections that could attract EFTA countries, especially Switzerland which is increasingly moving away from the EU, would redraw the continental map and create enormous difficulties in Brussels, which would no longer be the only player on the European stage.

Russia always loves any European difficulty
The competition with the Anglo-sphere is beginning to concern Brussels, but always with the understanding that in the end it would be an internal competition between allies. In contrast, the hypothesis that an independent Catalonia would cozy up to Russia or especially China, if left out of the EU, is an true nightmare for European strategists.
The fact that —despite the EU’s stance— Catalonia has consistently rejected establishing any bonds with dubious allies, especially with Russia, is paradoxically very reassuring to Brussels. However, imagine what would happen in the European capital if, in a hypothetical situation in which Catalonia was forced to abandon the EU due to Spanish intransigence, Russia or China tried to take advantage. It is a chilling thought to many.
Russia is already in the crosshairs, thanks especially to the Machiavellian interpretations that some media have made of the role of Julian Assange [who has actively supported the Catalan referendum]. Many observers, without much evidence, connect him with the Kremlin. And a simplistic explanation of his obvious interest in the Catalan situation is that Putin is pulling the strings.

This is not the case, however, but it is quite true that Russia has carefully avoided taking a position on the Catalan question, and it is equally true that they are interested in anything that could weaken the European Union. In addition, should the European Union not resolve the situation easily, Russia would have an opportunity to maneuver to bring back two major aggressions: the case of the West’s diplomatic recognition of the independence of Kosovo and the non-recognition of the annexation of Crimea. If the case of Catalonia is not dealt with quickly, this would be a gift for the Kremlin, which would certainly take advantage of it. And if the repression is obvious, Russia would go even further, as it is already doing in Venezuela.

China, with a new Silk Road awaiting
Possible Russian interest in Catalonia worries Brussels, but even more so does any possible Chinese involvement. In this case, the ideological component does not concern them so much, but the trade threat is much more serious and significant, so much so that some observers believe that the EU would never let Catalonia escape because having the ports of Barcelona and Tarragona at the service of China’s commercial strategy would be the greatest problem that the EU might face in the near future.

The Chinese government has launched the so-called New Silk Road, an extraordinarily ambitious project that aims to reconfigure world commerce around Beijing’s interests. This initiative is designed to change the economic structure of the entire world, and has already had an enormous impact in Asia and Africa.

For the moment, its impact in Europe is limited precisely because of the role of the European Union. As a result, China has only managed to get a toehold for part of this project in the Balkans, especially in Serbia, and has obtained some facilities from Greece, which is a far cry from what they hope and need. An independent Catalonia, with its ports in Barcelona and Tarragona outside of the EU, would be —in this sense— candy for the Chinese, and would create an absolute trade nightmare for the European Union.

The Mediterranean, Morocco, Turkey…
The possibility that one of these three blocs could take advantage of the Catalan referendum and cause problems for the European Union complicates Brussels’ response, and poses serious difficulties for Spain, given its intransigence. This is why everyone discounts the Spanish thesis that Catalonia would remain outside of the EU, and why people are beginning to talk openly about the process of accession of the Catalan Republic. It is believed that this process would be swift and easy because Catalonia is already part of the EU and it would only be necessary to negotiate very visible political aspects, which in practice are quite marginal. The absence of Rajoy at the EU summit in Tallin starting today is very significant in light of this.

Discomfort within the European Union over Spain’s crackdown is intense. Rajoy has set in motion a series of repressive acts that is unacceptable for majority partners and leaders of the European Union, especially following the example of the Scottish referendum. In Brussels these days, everyone is comparing the relative ease with which the Scottish conflict was resolved with the complications that the Spanish repression is causing for the EU. With an added element — this repression is forcing the EU to act if it doesn’t want to lose all of its credibility as a world leader in human rights, a position that European diplomacy has worked for many years to achieve.

This is especially applicable to the Mediterranean area. The terrible images of the Spanish government repressing the voting rights of Catalans, closing websites and threatening newspapers, handcuffing politicians for carrying out their responsibilities, and persecuting mayors are very damaging for the European Union. There is no doubt that countries such as Turkey will use them whenever they wish to expose Europe’s hypocrisy every time that Brussels protests the detention of Kurdish mayors or the closure of newspapers in Istanbul.

Likewise, though on a lesser level, Brussels is also concerned about the repercussions of the Catalan crisis on the southern shore of the Mediterranean, particularly in Morocco, which might consider taking advantage of it sees that Spain is severely weakened, and revive territorial claims over Ceuta and Melilla in the international arena.

All of these weighty arguments are driving the debate in Brussels, where, in hushed voices, everyone admits that they don’t know what will happen, but that whatever does happen, it will be essential to find a very rapid solution that will prevent further turmoil for a European Union that is already having too much of that.