Brussels Beat: Europe Struggles to Contain Catalan Tensions

By Laurence Norman Features Dow Jones Newswires

Ousted Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont's surprise flight to the European Union's capital this week underlined in dramatic fashion that Europe, try as it might, cannot brush separatist tensions in the region under the carpet.

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In a regional bloc dotted by separatist claims but which prides itself on peaceful, democratic responses to political crises, the clash between Madrid and Barcelona -- the latest echo of a centuries-old rivalry -- was never likely to be easily navigated.

During the past 15 years, the EU has evolved a set of responses to separatist aspirations that side pretty squarely with national governments. While the bloc has encouraged capitals to create political space and show respect for regional movements, it has taken a firm line on the one issue Brussels directs: EU membership.

That position -- known as the Prodi doctrine after former European Commission President Romano Prodi -- states that any region breaking away from a member state would automatically find itself outside the EU. If it wished to join, it would need to apply from scratch, a process that can take years.

The EU successfully stayed out the way of the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, with its officials repeating the Prodi doctrine ad nauseam and successfully avoiding comment on anything else.

Yet the Catalan crisis has proved different, principally because Catalonia's independence bid has been, in contrast with London's green light for the Scottish vote, in defiance of Madrid's wishes.

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Effectively, the line in Brussels and most European capitals was to support Madrid's attack on Catalan leaders being in breach of Spain's constitutional and legal order, hope for a solution and keep out the way.

Yet that approach has repeatedly failed to circumvent tensions. The first conflict emerged between Spain and Belgium after Prime Minister Charles Michel was outspoken in criticizing Madrid's handling of the outlawed Oct. 1 referendum vote that saw clashes between police and voters.

Mr. Michel faced political pressures of his own. He leads a four-party coalition government that includes the N-VA, the Flemish nationalist party that came first in the last Belgian federal election. The N-VA has old ties with Catalan leaders. In the past, Belgium has also clashed with Spain by failing to extradite asylum seekers that Spain accused of being linked to Basque terror group ETA.

"Violence can never be the answer! We condemn all forms of violence and reaffirm our call for political dialogue," Mr. Michel tweeted.

Spanish officials responded with a strongly worded diplomatic note leaked in Belgian media. They called Mr. Michel's remarks "absolutely unacceptable" and said they had gravely compromised bilateral relations.

When EU leaders met in Brussels in mid-October, concerns were growing in some capitals that Spain's government seemed to be closing the door on dialogue and escalating the standoff.

Yet ahead of the summit, European Council President Donald Tusk, who himself had urged Madrid not to resort to "the argument of force," made it clear Catalonia would be off the agenda. He had spoken with Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, who didn't want the issue discussed.

However, at the summit's dinner discussions, German Chancellor Angela Merkel asked Mr. Rajoy if he would say a word on the Catalan situation. When Mr. Tusk later invited Mr. Rajoy to respond, he waived his hands in a gesture indicating he had nothing to say, one of the officials said.

Mr. Puigdemont's Brussels sojourn could now keep the Catalan crisis front and center. The Catalan leader told journalists Tuesday that he wasn't in Brussels to apply for asylum but had come to Europe's capital to keep the debate alive.

"The Catalan issue is at the very basis of the values on which Europe is founded: democracy, freedom, freedom of expression," he said. Allowing Spain to impose what he called a violent crackdown in Catalonia, and the state prosecutor's request to send its leaders to prison for as many as 30 years, "is to end with the idea of Europe."

More immediately, Mr. Puigdemont's presence could pose some awkward decisions for Belgian authorities. Spain's state prosecutor on Thursday requested a European arrest warrant for the ousted Catalan leader who failed to show at a court hearing in Madrid. If a Spanish judge approves the request, Belgian authorities will have to decide whether to offer the Catalan leader asylum or send him home.

Belgium is one of the few EU countries that still offer asylum to people from other EU countries despite a Spanish-inspired EU rule that seeks to restrict such moves. While Mr. Michel said Tuesday that Mr. Puigdemont would be offered no special treatment, Bart de Wever, the Antwerp mayor and powerful leader of the N-VA, told Belgian media Wednesday he won't abandon the Catalan leader.

"Puigdemont is a friend, and friends are always welcome here," Mr. de Wever said.

Write to Laurence Norman at laurence.norman@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

November 02, 2017 13:14 ET (17:14 GMT)