The Reconciliation of the Catalan Government with Brussels Likewise Depends on Puigdemont

Bernardo de Miguel

5 mins - 11 de Agosto de 2023, 16:45

The Catalan government, the Govern, presided over by Pere Aragonés has spent months reconstructing its relationship with the European Commission, which was destroyed almost a decade ago as a result of the pro-Catalan independence initiative, the procés. A strategy of normalisation potentially could be derailed if Catalan pro-independence MPs, especially those loyal to former president Carles Puigdemont, complicate the investiture of a new government in Spain or indirectly facilitate the coming to power of a far-right party willing to once again exacerbate the situation in Catalonia. 

The EU executive headed by the German conservative Ursula von der Leyen has shown itself to be open to the signs of rapprochement initiated since the arrival of Aragonés at the Palau de la Generalitat, the seat of Catalonian government. Additionally, gestures of détente between Brussels and Barcelona have followed one after another, with one of the Commission’s vice-presidents, Margaritis Schinas, even visiting the Catalan capital to meet with the current president of the Generalitat. However, the improvement of relations between the Commission and the Govern is in danger if Spanish and Catalan politics enter another phase of turbulence that could unsettle the positions of both the Spanish and Catalonian governments in Brussels.

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All eyes are on Waterloo, where the current MEP Carles Puigdemont not only holds one of the keys to the formation of a government in Spain but also to whether or not the Generalitat will continue to regain its traditional and privileged access to European institutions – an access that depends to a large extent on relations between the Moncloa and the Palau. In fact, the emerging understanding between Von der Leyen’s Commission and the Generalitat’s administration has gone hand in hand with the “disinflamation,” or gradual soothing of tensions, that Pedro Sánchez’s government has achieved in Catalonia. 

Aragonés’ commitment, as he indicated after his meeting with Schinas, is to “intensify our relations with the EU”. The govern aspires to recover the high level of interlocution with the EU capital that the Catalan authorities enjoyed until relations with Brussels derailed in 2015

That year, the then president of the Generalitat, Artur Mas, visited the Commission’s headquarters (the Berlaymont building) to meet with the European Commissioner for Transportation – a final visit with a red carpet. With the first signs of the procés, the doors of the Commission began to close one after the other, and phone calls and emails from the Generalitat were met with silence in response.

And it was not until January 2022 that a first attempt was made between Brussels and Barcelona, thanks to a meeting between the Catalonian Minister for External Action, Victória Alsina, and the European Commissioner for Cohesion and Reforms, Elisa Ferreira. However, this was not even a bilateral meeting, but the result of a visit by representatives of the so-called ‘Euroregion’. The govern had to wait until this year for an EU leader to offer an exclusive meeting with the Catalan authorities.  

The slamming of the door eight years ago could be repeated if Catalan independentistas become the trigger for a repeat election in Spain, giving Vox another chance to come to power with PP, a possibility that bothers capitals such as Brussels, Paris, and Berlin. 

The Commission, as an institution, remains neutral in electoral processes. But a return to the ballot box would frustrate the relief with which Brussels greeted the outcome of the Spanish general election on 23 July, given that the results stood as was a major setback for the rise of the far right throughout Europe.

Vox’s poor result foiled Santiago Abascal’s party’s chances of entering a coalition government with PP – an outcome that would have reinforced the power and influence of the ultra-far right and Eurosceptic forces in Brussels to halt progress on budgetary, migratory, or environmental issues and to complicate Von der Leyen’s chances of re-election in 2024 if the German opts to continue at the head of the Commission.

Feijóo’s narrow victory on 23 July has also had reverberations at the European level because it has weakened the momentum of the most conservative wing of the European People’s Party (EPP), which questions Von der Leyen’s continuity and, more or less, advocates for a closer understanding with the far right as a factor of electoral needs.

“Feijóo, who harbours a deep personal dislike for [Von der Leyen], has failed in his plan to win the prime minister’s post after the legislative elections in Spain”, the German daily Die Welt pointed out last week in an analysis of the current Commission president’s chances of re-election. The same newspaper pointed out that, paradoxically, the continuity of Sánchez would play more to the benefit of the German president because the Spaniard would add support from the socialists in her favour.

Puigdemont thus faces a delicate situation. The seven seats of Junts, decisive for the formation of a government in Madrid, could also provoke a shake-up in Brussels and in relations between the Commission and Catalonia. Puigdemont seems to be aware that he has been entrusted with a power that should be handled with caution. “Having the key is circumstantial. One day you have it and the next day you don’t, and we must never lose sight of that. This should not lead us to fall into either rushing for fear of losing it or over-acting in the face of a power that is inevitably ephemeral”, the former Catalan president acknowledged in a comment on social networks a few days after the elections of 23 July placed him in the spotlight of much of the continent.
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