February 5, 2018
The United Kingdom wants to leave the EU, Catalonia wants to get back in! Two curiously star-crossed destinies that raise a disturbing question: does national sovereignty still exist?
The answer, a cruel one, is ‘no’. National sovereignty no longer really exists, a fact that frustrates the independence wishes of some and the emancipation of others. For any Member State in the Eurozone, how much margin of manoeuvre does the Prime Minister have? Regulations and Directives come from Brussels, international trade agreements come from the WTO and financial matters are managed by the European Central Bank.
Although largely diluted by having 28 Member States, the European Union is in practice (if not in law) inspired by federalism, since Nation-states have to respect its authority. It is obvious that a large Member State cannot leave either the EU or the Euro because it is paralysed by countless treaties, agreements and regulations, like Gulliver was by many tiny Lilliputians.
UK and Catalonia: a political analysis by default
For Catalonia, it is surprising. The pro-independence party thought they had the support of the Commission. But how can the EU executive organ support a province in its battle with a Nation-state?
To borrow Jacques Delors’ expression, the EU is a coalition of Nation-states. Supporting a separatist movement would put the whole organisation at risk.
As for the UK, the Prime Minister who decided on the referendum was expecting only one outcome: remaining in the EU, but it was the opposite. Most likely this all happened without any preparation or impact assessment, no communication, no plan B and no consideration of the workings of Article 50!
For Catalonia, it was all about a pseudo-leadership brutally forcing a decision, completely unlike the Basques who were much more skilful in winning extra autonomy. For the UK, Brexit seems more like a tool for extending further the package of concessions and derogations they obtained from the EU following successive Treaty reforms.
Catalans and British: bad negotiators
The current failure of Theresa May is above all an internal failure. In mid-May 2017 her Parliament forbade her from using implementing regulations to replace the acquis communautaire.
At the end of 2017, a House of Commons majority voted to give itself the right to say ‘no’ to the outcome of negotiations with the EU. Aside from the lack of a clear strategic view, these two decisions – both democratically well-founded – have put the UK in an extremely weak position and provided justification for a transition period whereby they will become a third country, but remain subject to EU rules without benefiting from the expected advantages of Brexit.
In Catalonia, it is also due to a poor handling of internal processes that the former President Carl Puigdemont finds himself barred from standing for office unless he submits to the Spanish Constitutional Court (and might well end up in prison). In both cases, the rule of law and its constraints have been ignored, if not flouted.
A common objective: having your cake and eating it
For the United Kingdom, things are very clear. It wants to benefit from a tailored scheme, consisting in a free trade agreement that includes services (which has never occurred before), thereby preserving its European financial passport. Alternatively, it could conclude a partnership agreement with access to the single market, but without full free movement of workers. Neither of these demands have any chance of success.
For Catalonia, the strategy is more basic and more selfish: secede from Spain and its poor regions, abandon all solidarity, remain in the Euro and get quasi-automatic entry into the EU. This also has no chance of happening.
Basically, this is all a story of mediocre leaders confronted with a European Union which, for once, is standing firm and giving hope for tomorrow.