Catalan representative to the EU: It is more a political question than a technical one.

Featured Image: Mr. Amadeu Altafaj, the permanent representative of the Catalan Government to the European Union.

Disclaimer: Amid ongoing developments of the issue, it is important to note that this interview was conducted on 12 October. We have tried to reach the Spanish government and the European Commission for comments, but so far we have no feedback from them.

By Sing Lee and Kristoffer Olesen

The Catalan cry for independence is stronger than ever, but one of the main barriers for the secession of the wealthy Iberian nation is its future relationship with the titanic European trading bloc on its doorstep. Spain is strongly opposed to an independent Catalonia and as a member of the EU it holds veto rights against any new members.


If rationality prevails

Amadeu Altafaj is the permanent representative of the Catalan Government to the European Union, he is a former journalist and an experienced diplomat. In late 2012 he publicly commented on the economic situation of Catalonia and affirmed his belief that an independent Catalonia is economically viable. A belief he reconfirmed in the head office of the Catalan delegation to the EU on the 12th of October this year.


Altafaj recognizes that even a strong European economy like the Catalan could face problems outside the trading bloc, however he doesn’t find it likely that an independent Catalonia’s path to membership would be obstructed Spain:


“If economical and financial rationality prevails, nobody has any interest in a disruptive scenario” he says, adding that “Catalonia is part of the single market, it is essential for the Spanish economy, exports, security and movement of citizens. If rationality prevails, all the parties – including our European partners – have no interest in an abrupt ending.”


Spain has so far not commented on the possibility of vetoing an independent Catalonia’s application for membership, but even if that should be the case, Altafaj believes he has a workaround, by settling EU negotiations before leaving the Spanish State:


“If Spain wants to obstruct things, legally speaking we will not leave Spain and therefore not leave the European Union,” he says.


We’ve reached out to representatives of the Spanish government, but so far all have declined to comment.


The technical perspectives

Several stakeholders and experts has discussed the issue technically, giving largely diverged views, which kind of indicates the issue is highly depending on political factors.


The application of a state to be a member of the European Union is subjected to Article 49 of the Lisbon Treaty and the Copenhagen criteria.


The former states that any European State respecting and promoting the EU values like democracy, freedom, human dignity and equality named in Article 2 of the same treaty would be eligible for application, while the latter specifies requirements in economical, institutional and judicial capacity of the states.


Altafaj told VoteWatch Europe on 25 September that based on Article 49, Catalonia would be able to declare independence without leaving the EU by initiating a fast-track negotiation ‘from inside’ between the three involved parties, EU, Spain and Catalonia.


“On the other hand, if we leave Spain, if we have the recognition of our independence, then we can apply for membership and we can materialise that [the application of EU membership] before materialising the exit from Spain,” he further explained this point in the interview on 12 October.


Yet, according to the same VoteWatch Europe report, Dr. Ignacio Molina, a senior researcher at the Madrid-based think tank Elcano Royal Institute collided with Altafaj that there would be ‘no actual effect’ and remains a part of Spain and the EU as Catalonia’s self-proclaimed independence would not be recognised.


He suggested that an independent Catalonia would need to go through all the ‘complex negotiations’ for re-entering EU just as ‘a third country’, similar to what is going on with the candidate countries of Turkey, Serbia and Montenegro, a process which would takes years, if not decades.


According to Article 49, an application for being a member state needs to get a ‘unanimously act’. or a complete agreement from the Council of Ministers after consulting the European Commision, and also receive an assent from the ‘absolute majority’ of the European Parliament.


Molina pointed out that a re-entry would not be possible due to the lack of support from Spain, an EU member state which has a right to vote in the Council or the Commission and therefore to block an ‘unanimously act’.


Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commission, told Euronews during a Youtube live interview on the 14th of September that an independent Catalonia ‘will have to follow the same accession procedures as the member states that joined after 2004’.


“Catalonia will not be able to become an EU member state the day after such a vote,” said Juncker, even if such a referendum was legal according to the Spanish constitutional court and the Spanish Parliament.


Looking for political solutions

Even Altafaj have different views than other stakeholders on the possibility or at least the complexity of an independence Catalonia’s re-entry to the EU, he is hoping for a negotiation between the Spanish government and the Catalan government.


“It is a bit of a paradox. My point is there is no legal or only legal answer to your questions. The question is first and foremost a political one,” said Altafaj.


He suggests the European Union making effort to put forward political solutions for the Catalan crisis, as it has a ‘political and moral duty to exercise some positive influence, if it is only at least to call for restraint on the use of violence and to call the parties to solve their political problems through politics.”


Video: Interview with Amadeu Altafaj

Watch a video with footage from the interview with the permanent representative of the Catalan Government to the European Union.