New Head of the Jacques Delors Institute Discusses the Crisis in Spain over Catalonia and Implications for the EU and Multilateralism

Sébastien Maillard. Copyright - Alessia Campostrini

Paris, November 27, 2017

With populist movements strong throughout many European nations, many espousing  anti-EU rhetoric, while gearing up for elections looming next spring, notably in Italy and possibly Germany, we thought there was no better way to understand the situation going forward than by examining the current, simmering, potentially-violent situation in Spain. There the government in Madrid and pro-independent leaders in Barcelona remain locked in a stand-off regarding the drive for independence of  Catlalonia.  

We therefore interviewed the new French director of the Jacques Delors Institute in Paris, Sébastien Maillard, 44, a former seasoned journalist with the highly-respected daily La Croix, author and European expert, who also has taught at Boston College.

The interview took place earlier this month in English at his Paris headquarters where he directs operations with sixteen staff members, plus eight in Berlin and one in Brussels. The institute, bearing the name of its innovative, popular French founder, the former European Commission President Delors, was established in 1996.

Since then and notably this past weekend, the controversial Catalan leader in exile on the outskirts of the Belgian city of Bruges, Charles Puigdemont, launched his campaign for independence stating, according to today’s Politico Europe, that voters must « ratifiy » his call for independence in a crucial vote in the region December 21. But former Catalan President  Artur Mas, according to Politico, cautioned that Catlalonia should not take any new, bold steps even if Puigdemont’s supporters win, until the region attracts « international support, » so far virtually inexistent.      

Given the explosive, heated political situation in Spain over Catalonia’s controversial drive for independence, do you see it as a Spanish or a European-wide crisis ?

It is firstly a Spanish question in that Catalonia is part of Spain, even considering its  historical, dificult ties with this (Spain’s) former empire. But when a country  becomes part of the EU, it is difficult to say it is just a Spanish problem. In other words, whether you look at Catalonia,  Flanders, (in Belgium) Scotland or perhaps Sicily, Veneto and Lombardy in Italy, even (to a far lesser extent) Corsica (in France), you have to recognize that the EU is a kind of umbrella  regarding these regional movements. (seeking varying degrees of autonomy or independence)

Does the EU support such movements?

It is not meant to…supporting these movements,but because there is a strong EU it’s easier for regional movements to have easier credibility for their actions. I have always been amazed when (as a journalist) attending meetings striving for the independence of Flanders, not Catalonia, there were always EU flags with their flag, flying together. In other words, the EU paradoxically, facilitates this will.(for autonomy or independence)

Has there been any discussion to your knowledge about the EU seeking a rôle in resolvng the crisis in Spain ? Such as creating a legal, sovereign, territorial status for regions such as Catalonia ? Hasn’t the Commission seemingly stayed away for playing an active, even mediating rôle.

Yes. And it is because of member states. If the issues involved are taken up at the European level, the entire architecture of the EU made up of member states could collapse. Iffor example, we had some Corsicans seeking independence, the French (governemnt) would hardly be supportive, looking at it as Brussels interference.

Was the earlier referendum in Catalonia legal under EU law?

It was not under Spanish law, unlike the one in Scotland.

Yes, but many of the the arguments we hear are legalistic. The political situation resembles a tense, often-violent standoff between the powers in Madrid and Barcelona, Catalonia’s capital. A conflict for the time being going nowhere. So if in the regional vote on independence planned for December 21 is favorable, then what?

That will change the situation. But I insist that the legal aspects, as the EU is a legal construction …yes, currently it is a crisis. And the EU will have to see if the law is breached or not. (assuming independence is supported in the vote.) If the outcome is in favor, which I doubt, then it will have to be respected. It would also mean a process of disengagement (from the EU) would have to begin and they (the Catalonian government) would have to apply for membership.

Is the now-established Flemish autonomy in Belgium, without independence, an example of what may happen in Spain?

They already have gone very far in terms of autonomy, yet respect the central government. It (Belgium with its monarchy) is a real federal state now. There is not that much left for Brussels, the nation’s capital. It, (Belgium) a very fragile state, is in a sense two countries., even (the split) extending to football (soccer) clubs. But EU identity and a nation’s respect of law also remains very important.

So what then are the prospects of getting a solution in Spain even just getting the various sides to come together for serious discussions, given that the conflict  resembles a battle between what observers describe as the « strongman, » Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, and the « martyr » Catalonia’s leader currently exiled in Belgium, facing possible extradition and jail, Carles Puigdemont.

It’s very difficult to predict what’s going to happen. Hoping the campaign (in the December vote) will be honest and fair, and that the Catalonians (between now and the December vote) think twice, seeing what is happening in the UK over Brexit. And even with regard to Quebec whose leaders have realized they do not have the means to be independent.And with regard to Scotland, it will depend on how the Brexit negotiations go. The EU, not the Commission nor the Council, but possibly the European Parliament, might play a facilitating rôle…keeping them under the EU umbrella…but there is no apparent support in the EU for independence.

Turning to transAtlantic relations, you are no doubt aware of President Trump’s hostile  statements on his trip to Asia about allegedly badly-flawed multilateral agreements negotiated by his predecessors. And there and earlier, he rarely if ever mentions Europe. And most observers on both sides of the Atlantic say the proposed TransAtlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, the TTIP, is in deep freeze or dead, with no signs that Trump may change his mind about multilateral trade agreements. What do you say ?

We are very worried about US protectionism. Taking into account that the EU has the duty in the world to save multilateralism. The EU must defend multilateralism, and support, for example, the World Trade Organization, the OECD…we, the EU, is based on multilatralism. And if we fail, it would damage the US itself. But it is not only Trump challenging multilateralism, but Russia…As for the TTIP, I see little if any chance it being back on the agenda in the short or medium term. He (Trump) clearly has difficulty understanding the EU institutions. Certainly compared to President Obama who probably was the best partner the EU ever had.

Regarding Russia, what kind of progress and geopolitical arrangements might there be with the EU going forward ?

I do not see any progress. And the EU (as a priority) must look at its own divisions, between East and West.  (Europe) We must do everything possible to avoid any new divides, taking into account that some EU members, like Poland, want us to stand firm with regard to Russia and, in particular, the sanctions. The only way to deal with (Russian president) Putin is to be united, strong and firm. Force he understands.

Regarding EU power in the future, the suggestion again being mentioned is a multi-speed Europe, with those wanting to go forward on integration do so, like France and Germany, without others. France’s President Emmanuel Macron has repeatedly called for reinforcing powers of the nineteen-nation euro zone. Is this the model?

Once the UK is out (of the 28-nation EU) there will be no real difference among the other EU states and one day their becoming members of the same euro zone. That is the goal expressed by EU Commission President Juncker. This would not exclude agreements outside the euro zone, like on defense.

Could the EU replace the US as a global power ?

German Chancellor Merkel has been weakened by the last elections in Germany. And questions are raised regarding what kind of coalition partners she may have, (following the collapse of coalition talks this past weekend)  And this weakens Macron, as no (European) leader can lead (the bloc) by him or her self. Just remember that it was not one leader who led (in the early eighties,) it was not just President Francois Mitterrand ; but the three together – Mitterrand, (Chancellor) Helmut Kohl and Delors. There are many unknowns, if Spain, for example, is out of the game. And if Italy is in difficulty after its elections in March. It would be a bad scenario if the German coalition turns out to be weak. There is an opportunity, a chance, (to replace the US as a global power) but it has clearly become more difficult. But if we do not take it up(the challenge regarding the US), no one else will.

Axel Krause is the Paris-based contributng editor of TransAtlantic Magazine. For decades he covered the EU, as well as the Soviet Union and the US, as correspondent, bureau chief and editor in Paris, Moscow and Washington for Business Week Magazine and the International Herald Tribune. He is the author of Inside the New Europe.







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