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ANALYSIS

Catalonia's crisis is turning into a European problem

A man holds up a Spanish national flag outside the entrance to the regional Catalan government offices in Barcelona, Spain, on Oct. 30, 2017.

ANGEL GARCIA/BLOOMBERG

By ISHAAN THAROOR | The Washington Post | Published: November 1, 2017

After helping engineer a political showdown that triggered a constitutional crisis in Spain, deposed Catalan regional president Carles Puigdemont did what many renegade politicians do: He turned up in another country.

On Monday, Puigdemont and several other senior Catalan officials made their way to Brussels, the capital of Belgium and, more importantly, the European Union. Back home, he and a number of his allies face rebellion and sedition charges, which could lead to a sentence of up to 30 years in prison. Though Catalonia's secessionists have won next to no sympathy from foreign governments, they pinned their hopes on a romantic loyalty to the European project and its liberal values. Their cause is only creating headaches for EU administrators and statesmen.

Puigdemont's presence in Brussels was already roiling the Belgian political scene, let alone the broader European one, and surfacing the many divisions within the country's fragile ruling coalition. The country's French-speaking liberal prime minister had no time for the Catalan leader, while his Flemish nationalist partners were far more sympathetic.

Belgian leaders stressed Puigdemont was not in their country by invitation, though they do allow other EU citizens to apply for asylum. Belgium sets the bar for asylum very high, and there is no indication yet that applying is Puigdemont's reason for traveling there.

"We really shouldn't be importing Spanish problems," a Belgian government official told Politico.

"We are here because Brussels is the capital of Europe, it is not a question of Belgian politics," said Puigdemont, in an attempt to reassure his hosts. "This is a European issue, and I want Europe to react."

Puigdemont went on to paint a picture of a heavy-handed Spanish government, repressing Catalan aspirations and seeking to persecute its pro-independence leadership.

"The Spanish government was preparing an offensive against the people of Catalonia, calling [on] them to be loyal," Puigdemont said, speaking to reporters in Catalan, Spanish and French. "We are facing a state that only understands the reason of force."

Puigdemont defiantly described himself as the "legitimate president" of Catalonia, even though Madrid dissolved the regional parliament in Barcelona on Friday and removed Puigdemont from his elected post. He said he wasn't seeking asylum, but he had come to Brussels "to have more security." He hired a prominent Belgian human rights lawyer with a track record of defending political dissidents, including Basque separatists.

Puigdemont had presided over weeks of escalating tensions between Madrid and Barcelona. His pro-secessionist government held a controversial independence referendum Oct. 1 that was met by a ham-handed Spanish response that partially suppressed the vote. In the days that followed, Puigdemont and his allies appealed to nationalist indignation within Catalonia, even as their political options narrowed. A declaration of independence by the Catalan parliament on Friday was followed by Madrid invoking Article 155 of the Spanish constitution for the first time - a move that imposed direct rule on Catalonia and took the whole country into uncharted territory.

"I am convinced," explained Puigdemont, "according to the information that I have, that there would have been a violent reaction" had he remained at home. Reports late Tuesday indicated at least one Catalan ex-official was returning to Barcelona, but it was unclear if Puigdemont would do the same.

Confusion now reigns in Catalonia, with some of Puigdemont's allies still showing up for the meetings of a phantom Catalan republic. A photo posted by Catalonia's top foreign affairs official, Raul Romeva, showed a gathering of Catalan officials sitting in front of both the Catalan and EU flags, but not the Spanish one.

The majority of the region's political parties, including Puigdemont's, have agreed to snap elections in December that will lead to a new regional government. Puigdemont may be hoping Catalan voters, angered by the harsh treatment from Madrid, may come out and return the secessionists to power. His opponents will be galvanized by the vast pro-unity rally - attended by Spaniards from all over the country - that took place over the weekend in Barcelona.

"It's an opportunity," Susana Beltran Garcia, a legislator with the centrist, pro-unity Ciudadanos party, told Bloomberg View. "The new government will be legal, democratic. It will have the legitimacy to talk to the Spanish government."

But even as Puigdemont's own gamble looks increasingly to have failed, the underlying tensions fueling the moment will not go away. The continued divisions raise key questions for the European Union at a time of increasing nationalism around the continent.

"The E.U. is politically and intellectually unprepared for a crisis in Spain," wrote Financial Times columnist Gideon Rachman. "The European project is based on the idea that the E.U. is a 'safe space' for liberal values. Once a country enters the club it is assumed to leave old conflicts, whether internal or external, outside the door."

That was particularly true for Spain, which emerged from decades of dictatorship, and joined the continental bloc while building a democracy that better guaranteed the freedoms and autonomy of the country's diverse and often very distinct regions. Spain's homegrown experience with fascism through the middle of the 20th century made it more immune to the xenophobic populism that swayed recent elections in nearby countries like France, Britain and the Netherlands.

But even that could change, with the Catalan crisis provoking, in some corners, the resurgence of reactionary right-wing nationalism. As the animosities fester, the prospect of further chaos remains.

"Catalonia's bid for independence demonstrates that traditional questions of nationhood and sovereignty can still stir the blood in modern Europe," wrote Rachman. "There is also a possibility that the crisis could lead to violence between the Spanish central government and pro-independence forces in Catalonia. That would challenge Spain's traditional status as a prime example of the benefits of the European project."
 

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