Hillebrecht: Catalonia independence bid is 'huge stress test for European Union'

Hillebrecht: Catalonia independence bid is 'huge stress test for European Union'

People rally in support of Catalonia independence during national day in Barcelona, Spain, on Sept. 11, 2017.
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People rally in support of Catalonia independence during national day in Barcelona, Spain, on Sept. 11, 2017.

After major upheavals such as Britain’s exit and Greece’s financial meltdown, the European Union faces another stress point with Catalonia’s bid for independence — and the Spanish government’s hard-line response.

Just minutes after Catalan parliament in Barcelona voted 70-10 to declare independence from Spain, the Spanish Senate granted the central government authority to take over Catalonia.

Courtney Hillebrecht, a scholar specializing in international politics at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, says the situation has worrisome implications for the European Union and beyond.

Courtney Hillebrecht
Courtney Hillebrecht

“This is a huge stress test for the European Union,” she said. “Essentially this is a debate between self-determination and state sovereignty. The EU has not been tested on this within its own borders to such an extent before.”

When the European Union was founded in November 1993, Spain and its autonomous communities like Catalonia were viewed as a model of multilingual, multicultural statehood, Hillebrecht said.

“The idea was that the Spanish government and the EU could provide the structures and institutions needed to keep all of these different communities united,” Hillebrecht said. “Of course, this has now changed.”

Catalonia’s bid for independence has several implications for the rest of the European Union, she said. It could spur new bids for independence elsewhere. It raises questions about if and how Spain should deploy its security forces and if such a response is appropriate. And it tests the European Union’s institutions, such as the European Court of Justice.

“We might be seeing renewed efforts at independence in Scotland, perhaps even Northern Ireland,” Hillebrecht said, although she cautioned that she is saying only that independence groups might be inspired to act, not that they will act. “Within Spain and into France, Basque nationalists have been seeking independence for well over 100 years. In Belgium, this might inspire Wallonia and Flanders to reignite tensions. And these are just a few possibilities. There might be many more.”

The European Union and Western democracies more broadly must determine whether it’s appropriate to respond to this sort of threat by taking control of the government or by using police or military force or other coercive actions.

“Thus far, I think Spain has surprised a number of observers with how aggressive it has been,”Hillebrecht said. “What's surprising is not the importance of Catalonia but rather the measures that Spain has taken, like deploying security forces during protests and the Oct. 27 decision to take emergency control of the government.”

Hillebrecht, who is an expert in the operations of international tribunals such as the European and Inter-American Courts of Human Rights, said the Catalan bid for independence will test European Union’s institutions like the European Court of Justice.

“Given that this is unprecedented territory, all eyes will be on the EU institutions to see how they interact with Spain and if or how they interact with the separatists,” she said. “Given Brexit and its fallout, the EU has a lot to lose, especially in terms of its perceived legitimacy and credibility.”