Cristian Segura – 3/4/2021
Catalan President Artur Mas, on the left, with the President of the European Commission José Manuel Durao Barroso, in 2011. EFE / EFE
A decade ago, the Generalitat of Catalonia’s relationship with the European Commission was unusually intense. Few regions of the EU maintained such a close institutional link with the upper echelons of power in Brussels. In March 2011, the culmination of this good harmony took place, the meeting between José Manuel Durao Barroso, President of the Commission, and President Artur Mas. Since then, the connection between the Catalan administration and the EU has been blurring to a practically irrelevant.
The independence process, the confrontation with Spain and a disruptive foreign action have eroded the pro-European bridges that the governments of Jordi Pujol and a hyperactive civil society had built. One year after the Barroso / Mas event, the greatest exponent of the change that occurred was the visit this March of the Internal Market Commissioner, Thierry Breton, to the Reig Jofre factory in Sant Joan Despí (Barcelona): Reig Jofre will produce the vaccine against covid-19 from the pharmaceutical company Janssen.
No representative of the Generalitat was present at the Breton ceremony, as denounced by the new leader of the Partit dels Socialistes de Catalunya (PSC), Salvador Illa. The commissioner was accompanied by the Minister of Industry, Commerce and Tourism, Reyes Maroto.
The separation of Spain, a member state, is the priority of the parties of Catalan nationalism, and in this strategy, at the international level, the one who calls the shots is Carles Puigdemont. The former president of the Generalitat is a MEP and resides in Belgium to avoid being judged by the Supreme Court for the illegal referendum of October 2017 and the unilateral declaration of independence. Last December Puigdemont expressed some words that visualize the change in European strategy that Catalan political power has experienced: “We will not negotiate the independence of Catalonia with the EU because the EU is a union of the States; there the singing voice is Spain. Nor is the EU the fastest to recognize independences. There is life beyond ”.
Illa has been especially critical of the situation. “We have been ten years, which are said soon, without any person in charge of the Generalitat having been received by a commissioner of the European Union, when such important things are decided in Europe,” Illa said in an interview in March with EL PAÍS . The statement is not precise: Mas was received in July 2015 by the Commissioner for Transport and Mobility Violeta Bulc, although it was the last blow of a privileged agenda that Catalonia had in Brussels.
The year 2011 was the last in the prolific relations between the Generalitat and the European institutions. Catalonia was recognized as an outstanding student of the new austerity guidelines to reduce public debt. “Catalonia has done its homework and will serve as an example to other territories in savings policy,” Mas stated in his June 2011 meeting with the President of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy. In July of that year, the president received the vice president of the European Commission Viviane Reding in the Palace of the Generalitat; In October, the Company Councilor Francesc Xavier Mena met with the Commissioner for Occupation and Social Affairs Laszlo Andor, and the Councilors for Agriculture and Territory, Josep Maria Pelegrí and Lluís Recoder, met with the Commissioner for the Environment Janez Potocnik.
In 2013, the fracture between the Generalitat and the European institutions materialized. But he tried in September 2013 to meet Durao Barroso again, although he refused. The second course was no small thing: the head of the Catalan executive was able to see the vice-presidents of the Commission Olli Rehn and Maros Sefkovic. But something had already been broken. Two months later, the president of the European Commission confirmed in writing, after the insistence of the pro-independence MEPs, that if Catalonia separated from Spain, it would leave the EU.
As of 2014, the Generalitat turned to unconstitutional self-determination referendums and unilateral independence. The European institutions submitted a resounding void. The most prominent appointments since then with community authorities were a brief meeting in 2016 between the Minister of Agriculture Meritxell Serret with the Commissioner for Maritime Affairs Karmenu Vella at conferences in the Azores (Portugal) and the presentation in 2019 in Barcelona of the European Corps of Solidarity, an act that was chaired by the Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid Christos Stylianides and the Minister of Labor and Social Affairs Chakir El Homrani.
Bilateral meetings between the presidency of the European Commission, its commissioners and regional leaders are not common. The President of the Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, had only two interviews in 2020 with the Presidents of the German states of Lower Saxony and North Rhine-Westphalia. Despite this, they are not exceptional: Albert Núñez Feijoo, President of Galicia, telematically interviewed last January with the Vice President of the Dubravka Suica Commission and the former President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker met in 2017, in the most recent tense months in Catalonia, with the Basque lehendakari, Íñigo Urkullu, and with Ximo Puig, president of the Valencian Community. Puig met in 2019 with the Vice President of the Commission Frans Timmermans.
Catalan independence movement denounces that the Spanish Government vetoes them in the European institutions
The Catalan independence movement denounces that the Spanish Government vetoes them in the European institutions. A spokeswoman for the European Commission informs EL PAÍS in writing that Von der Leyen and his commissioners “freely decide with whom they meet, including regional authorities.” Despite this, Jordi Bacaria, professor of Applied Economics and former director of the CIDOB center for international studies, is convinced that the word of the Government is taken into account: “Many of these relationships had developed through the Spanish Government. The moment there is a confrontation, inevitably the brakes are hit ”.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs made an effort during the years of the independence race to counteract the propaganda of the new diplomatic body of the Generalitat, the Diplocat. Diplocat was born from the transformation of the former Patronat Català Pro Europa, a public consortium that brought together Catalan institutional bodies and civil society to lobby the EU. Bacaria points out the disappearance of the board of trustees and the creation of Diplocat as the breaking point with the European institutions. “The Generalitat had surely had a very good and exceptional institutional relationship in the EU, the result of an active, acceptable political situation and consensus”, explains Bacaria: “This understanding no longer exists. There were many people on the Catalan side working diplomatically, playing Sherpas. When these Sherpas no longer exist, because they are not interesting, because they are separated or because they separate themselves, and on the other side there is no interest, the connection disappears ”. “We have been reduced to a functional relationship, like so many other regions,” adds the former director of CIDOB.
Francesc Homs, former Minister of Economy with Pujol and president of the European League for Economic Cooperation, values that the “unilateral approach [of independence] surely has changed the relationship.” “It is logical that the EU has adopted a distant and precautionary provision. The EU is governed by its founding treaties, and these leave territorial issues entirely to the internal dynamics of the States ”. Casimir de Dalmau, who was director of the Patronat Català Pro Europa and delegate of the Generalitat in Brussels, is of the same opinion: “The conflict bothers the European institutions, which are installed in the immovable position that it is an internal Spanish issue. From that moment on, political relations between the Generalitat and the European institutions will be conditioned by the evolution of Spanish internal politics ”.
“Pujol was expected and listened to in Brussels”
“Jordi Pujol gave prestige to the Generalitat because he was able to discuss with the highest European authorities on monetary and financial policy, industrial policy, transatlantic relations and, if necessary, also on the Reus hazelnut. President Pujol in Brussels was expected and listened to ”. This is how the veteran Casimir de Dalmau, former director of the Patronat Català Pro Europa, explains it. De Dalmau affirms that Pujol’s pro-European hyperactivity, but also that of Pasqual Maragall, lost steam with the enlargement of the EU: “There is an exponential multiplication and diversification of sub-state entities, with an immediate consequence, the material incapacity of the European institutions, particularly the Commission, to maintain a direct relationship with each of them and the lack of political will to differentiate between regions with political personality and purely administrative structures ”.
De Dalmau points out that the tripartite governments of the Generalitat, between 2003 and 2010, have already started a more sovereign foreign policy by opening international delegations. “When we got to 2012, the Generalitat’s relations with the European institutions were very far from where Pujol had left them,” says De Dalmau, “they had lost content and fluidity and Catalonia had ceased to shine with its own light in Brussels.”