Amadeu Altafaj: ‘EU accession will coincide with the proclamation of independence’

  • Interview with the Catalan government’s permanent representative to the EU · Catalonia is in a position to maintain EU membership come independence, he says

Pere Cardús i Cardellach Assumpció Maresma
09.09.2015 - 14:41
Actualització: 13.06.2022 - 09:53

As the permanent representative of the Catalan government to the European Union at a time when Catalonia is getting ready to make the most significant leap in its history, Amadeu Altafaj is a man with a challenging but exciting mission. Given the nation’s intent of making this leap without disturbing the balance—at least not too much—it needs people like Altafaj to help ensure that the transition goes as smoothly as possible. A Europhile through and through, Altafaj believes that the pragmatic underpinnings of the European project will ensure that Catalonia remains in the union.

Altafaj contends that the departure of seven and a half million of its citizens, which currently account for 20% of Spain’s GDP and 25% of its exports, is not in anyone’s interest. Least of all, Spain’s.

In an interview with VilaWeb, Altafaj expounds on this view and intimates that some friendly states are willing to recognize the future independent Catalan state. He sees a change in Spain’s Catalonia strategy and explains how EU accession should proceed once independence is declared: quickly, very quickly.

—Give us the truth. Will Catalonia exit the European Union if it proclaims independence?

—Catalonia will stay in the EU. The Catalans are European citizens with a series of individual rights. EU citizenship is codified in EU treaties, and it is in addition to the citizenship derived from member states. This is an unsolvable legal puzzle. Disenfranchise seven million European citizens? I am certain this cannot be done. It would be a huge discredit to the EU, a project that espouses integration.

—Not everyone thinks this way.

—Sometimes, here in Catalonia, we have fallen into two traps. The first is to think that our plight is primarily a legal debate, when it is a basically political one. In Scotland, this issue was quickly put to rest without any controversy. The second trap is to think that this debate would be seen as an isolated development, that what has happened in Europe over the last thirty years would not be factored in. In fact, if we look at the history of Europe, we see that there have been significant geopolitical changes, redrawn borders, all of which has been resolved via political dialogue. The legal framework has always followed political guidelines.

—Without resistance?

—No. It has occurred despite initial resistance. Remember what happened in Lithuania. Chancellor Helmut Kohl and President François Mitterrand opposed Lithuanian independence, almost supporting Gorbachev, against the most basic principles that underlie the European project: freedom, fundamental rights, and democracy. But reality is stubborn, and Lithuania’s independence went forward, and the country ended up joining the EU and has now adopted the euro. History is stubborn.

—Can a clear outline be drawn as to how EU continuity will unfold when independence is declared?

—It’s a matter that does not depend solely on us. We have a roadmap that outlines a clear sequence of events. Just as there needs to be a negotiation for the transfer of assets and liabilities between the state of origin—Spain—and the successor state—Catalonia (to use international law terms), the continuity of international treaties and the membership in international organizations must also be negotiated as part of this transition process. This roadmap can be deployed in a short timeframe. Because, as far as the European Union is concerned, which is what I know first-hand, Catalonia already applies the bulk of EU laws. All EU legislation is already being applied as part of the daily functioning of our nation. And we fulfil all membership criteria, both economic and democratic. The only needed adjustments are in the realm of state structures—having our own treasury, central bank, and so forth—but, in this respect, the work is well advanced. We have done our homework. Or, rather, the Commissioner and the Advisory Council for National Transition have. Whatever can be legislated under the current framework will be legislated. And whatever cannot be done right now will be prepared and then set aside until the go-ahead is given. With state structures already developed, accession negotiations would unfold rapidly and would take place at this stage of the transition, which means that we would not leave the EU.

—Are we prepared?

—Yes. We are prepared. Because we are not coming from the outside. We are inside.

—At what point will EU accession become effective?

—The date will be made to coincide with the proclamation of independence of the new state. There will be no discontinuity. This implies a negotiation. The technical aspect of the negotiation will not pose any problem, it will be straightforward. Catalonia is an economically viable state and its state structures are at a very advanced stage of design. There will be no problem of adaptation. Then there is the political aspect, which is acceptance. We believed that once independence becomes a reality, two things can happen: either Spain will recognize the Catalan state or it will not. Paradoxically, if Spain does not recognize the new state, the question of membership poses no difficulty, because there is an evident continuity. If it does recognize the new state, there will not be any problem either, as other states will have no difficulty in recognizing the new state once the state of origin does.

—It seems that the issue of EU exclusion is Spain’s favourite scare tactic.

—Spanish politics are currently dominated by fear. And not only regarding Catalonia and the Catalan issue, but also at the European level. I have seen this first-hand with the bailout of the Spanish financial sector. It was also a question of sovereignty. Spain saw it as something that threatened its sovereignty. The fear was that the ‘men in black’ would descend on Spain, but the economy was on the brink of bankruptcy. This fear has now shifted to the debate over Catalonia.

—Is there no way forward?

—It seems that Spain has finally conceded one point. It recognizes that the Catalan problem is not merely an internal affair of Spain, as it had previously maintained. We already knew that, and I myself knew first-hand that the matter was on the agenda of the European institutions and even the leaders of member states. In fact, recent statements by Chancellor Merkel and Prime Minister Cameron confirm that it has long been a matter of international concern that has been debated in Europe. But this is not only a Catalan issue. European institutions and powers are concerned about Spain’s stability. First it was its financial stability and now it is its political stability. Europe worries about where the Spanish government and Spain itself are headed.

—There is no concern about where the Catalans are headed?

—Where the Catalans are headed will become very clear on 27 September. It will be no surprise because we have been very transparent and predictable. We have devised a roadmap and we have shared it with our European partners. We are predictable. Those who are not predictable and therefore are cause for concern are the Spanish authorities and their institutions.

—Did the German government warn the Catalan government ahead of Chancellor Merkel’s recent statements on Catalonia?

—I’m not aware of it. That said, we have many informal communication channels with most European governments.

—Has the international community accepted the elections of 27 September as a plebiscite? Is it accepted that, with this election, we are conducting a referendum?

—Definitely. And this has happened very fast. If you recall, the Junts pel Sí electoral list materialized just a few weeks ago. And if we peruse the international press today, we will see the 27 September elections billed either as a de facto referendum or as an election that will be decisive for Catalan independence. Europe’s media and political class see this as a fact and have it on their agenda.

—It has always been said that until the final step is taken there will be no pronouncement on the part of the international community.

—No. And there’s no point in expecting it. Every now and then political leaders express concern and perplexity at the lack of political dialogue. We must be aware that we will not receive explicit support for the creation of a new EU state. It is only logical. The natural tendency of diplomats is to preserve the status quo. There is resistance to anything that might alter it, in the same way that later there is adaptation to the new reality. Realpolitik works both ways. This became clear in the Scottish case. No one stood up to question Scotland’s future in the EU when the referendum was proposed.

—When we ask the Catalan government if any country has committed to recognizing the future Catalan state, the only answer we get is a smile. Can you offer anything besides a smile?

—Well, you can see that I’m smiling right now. My smile stems from many exchanges I have had in my current and previous roles. There is sympathy, complicity . . . and sometimes, perplexity and admiration for the way we do things in Catalonia. The images of the National Day celebrations of recent years have been seen around the world and continue to make an impact. Just wait and see what happens this 11 September. Once again, the presence of international players in Barcelona will be huge. And it will be picked up by the international press, too. There is sympathy for the cause. There is no overt activism against Spain. The idea, instead, is to discreetly, though with an increasing level of intensity, urge the Spanish government to make a show of political realism and undertake a virtuous process of dialogue with the Catalan authorities and the new institutions that will emerge from the 27 elections.

—Is it in the EU’s best interest for Catalonia to remain in the union?

—And in Spain’s best interest! All the parties involved are interested in an orderly process based on political dialogue and in finding a solution that ensures financial and political stability. Particularly Spain’s financial stability, which has been critical in recent years. And, for other EU member states, from a self-interested point of view, economic stability. Nobody is eager to revisit episodes where Spain’s risk premium would shoot up again. No one gains anything in a situation like that. Nobody wants lingering doubts or uncertainties regarding whether Catalonia stays in the EU, given that it is a land of ​​seven and a half million people who account for 20% of Spain’s GDP and 25% of its exports, which is at the heart of Europe and the common market. Nobody wants any disruption. All parties, acting in their own interest, will do their utmost to pressure the Spanish government to establish a negotiated process for everyone’s good.

—Spain doesn’t necessarily agree that such a negotiated process is in its interest though.

—Obviously, I understand why the political agenda of the Spanish government, the PP, and other Spanish political forces would be to preserve the crown jewel. For economic and political reasons, I understand why this is their political priority. That said, in the EU of today, based on clear democratic values ​​and principles, it should be easy to understand that after three decades of trying to find a way to fit together, Catalans no longer believe this is possible and they now believe that it would be better to continue as neighbours within the EU. And they should do everything in their power to facilitate it.

—Aren’t they doing exactly the opposite?

—Cameron, who is ten times the politician that Rajoy will ever be, understood as much in the case of Scotland. He understood it while at the same time defending British interests. It is far better to arrange a negotiated process and to have a common roadmap that includes how to deal with international agreements and membership in international organizations, than to have a project shrouded in uncertainty that could destabilize the markets and have a significant economic impact. Cameron took a risk—that is what it’s all about. When the Spanish government places so much emphasis on what Cameron said (while rendering minimum services, by the way), it leaves out the rest of the picture. When they bring up Mr. Cameron, they should do so for what he actually did, which showed courage, something Mr. Rajoy lacks.

—When you say ‘minimum services’, do you mean that Cameron bowed to pressure from the Spanish government?

—There are two factors to consider here. On the one hand, Merkel and Cameron are the heads of government of two nations in the league of states that is the EU. The EU is essentially a league of states. It is also a union of citizens, and that is very important for Catalans. But above all it is a league of states. And this solidarity between states weighs heavily. On the other hand, both Merkel and Cameron belong to the conservative family. In this respect, they engage in minimum services in the sense that they have limited themselves to mentioning an article in the EU Treaty that refers to territorial integrity, and they have done little else.

—Meanwhile, Cameron is preparing for a referendum on whether the UK should stay in the EU . . .

—It’s seems ironic for Cameron to evoke the possibility of Catalonia’s leaving the EU when he is driving a referendum to decide whether Britain should remain in it. And in doing so he is assuming a significant risk that the option of exiting the EU will win. If Cameron is doing this, it is because of what I mentioned earlier: because he is seeking to force a clear change in the functioning of EU institutions. He used the referendum to negotiate exclusion clauses and changes that would work in his favour. He knows it is very difficult to conceive of the EU today without the UK. And he knows that this allows him to go to European capitals to seek support for a different EU so that UK citizens will vote for continuity. This is Cameron’s political game. I don’t think that Catalonia will find itself in the EU’s waiting room—nor will the UK for that matter. If the UK were to leave the union, I’m sure it would end up doing anything in its power to rejoin it later. But neither scenarios will materialize

—Should Catalonia do the same? Announce a referendum to decide whether to remain in the EU? Are we too beholden to the EU?

—I think it’s a good thing that Catalonia is pro-European in statements and in deeds. This is very important. Because this is our heritage. We were in Europe long before Spain joined the European Economic Community. For us, Europe was synonymous with the rights and freedoms we did not have during the dictatorship. We shouldn’t relegate ourselves to the sidelines. We cannot simply say we are not interested in a Europe that does not support us in our aspirations. We must hold up a mirror to Europe. What we Catalans are advocating are the values ​​and principles that underlie the European project. What goes against the European project is to seek to do away with the normal separation of powers in a democracy, as the PP is advocating in its proposed reform of the Constitutional Court. Or in the way it manipulated this court when it ruled on the Catalan statute of autonomy.

—So we don’t need to hold a referendum on membership in international organizations? We are taking for granted that we should be in the EU, then.

—What should be taken for granted and is crucial for public opinion in this nation is that the scenario we are proposing grants us as many rights as we enjoy today—rights derived from the single market, the free movement of people within the Schengen space, the euro . . . We should not envision any scenario that involves the curtailment of the rights we already enjoy and have earned. It would be a fundamental strategic error to get mired in this kind of rhetoric at this point. Once we are a state, if citizens so choose it, we can discuss these issues. We shouldn’t be the ones to propose these kinds of cutbacks from the get-go. Our starting point should be to build on our acquired rights through our own state.

—This would be a maximalist policy?

—I would call it a minimalist policy. The starting point must be the current level of entitlements. We shouldn’t play into our political opponents’ hands by speculating about our potential exit from the euro, or about not being part of the internal market, or doing away with the free movement of people, and so forth.

The roadmap we have presented leads to a better future in all respects. Let’s not be swayed by opinions which seek to spread fear among the undecided.

—Would membership in the European Free Trade Association solve some of these issues?

—Some, perhaps. But, again, we are EU citizens, and every Catalan has a number of acquired rights. European citizenship is over and above that which is derived from member states. This is established in the treaties. I would not accept any curtailment to begin with. Then, as a sovereign state, we can think about what kind of future we want. We will be able to discuss everything with full sovereignty. But not from a position of subordination to the debates that are taking place in Spain and Europe.

—Who benefits from these statements by Merkel and Cameron, which put the Catalan case on the European agenda?

—The Catalan case was already on the European agenda. In the upper echelons of the European institutions and the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, these scenarios have been studied for quite a while. The think tanks, the academic world that advises governments, the political parties, governments across the EU, have long been studying the issue. Many reports on the repercussions of an independent Catalonia have come out of Germany, France, the UK. But Spain presented a different version. It even said that no one was paying attention to the Catalan question and no one was interested in it. Let me tell you—it is of such little interest that Chancellor Merkel, who already has enough on her plate, is talking about it, and now Spanish authorities are approaching her begging for a few words of support.

—What would you say to those who are frightened by these words from Merkel or Cameron?

—I’d say to look at what the EU was like twenty-five years ago versus now, for instance. To consider the list of countries. Journalists could refresh their memory by searching the archives for what was being said about Lithuania in April of 1990, for example. Today in the EU we have separate Czech and Slovak states, coexisting in full harmony and integrated into the common market. We have the three Baltic republics, the countries of the former Yugoslavia, which came into being after a traumatic breakup, and so forth. Those who are afraid should realize that Europe is a realpolitik-driven machine that seeks to adapt and to find a negotiated solution to all tensions. At the end of the day, this is the EU’s great merit.

—But there’s a lot of resistance, too.

—There will always be those who resist change. Spain also resisted the European bailout and was lucky to get it. My experience has been to do things that were not spelled out in the Treaties: to bail out countries; to set up troikas; to be intrusive in our oversight of public finances; to send the European Statistics Agency to a given city hall or to the Greek Ministry of Defence to check if the numbers add up. If we had mentioned these things five years ago, people would have said we had gone mad. Europe is pragmatic by nature, and what it needs more than anything else after a crisis of unprecedented proportions, is stability. And the best way to ensure stability is through political dialogue. Outside of Spain, people are surprised by the lack of political skill and courage shown by the Spanish government vis-a-vis the Catalan issue, which it caused itself by striking down the statute and with all the regulations and measures aimed at recentralization. In Europe, this is hard to believe. They cannot understand it.

—If you were Spanish, how would you view the Catalan case?

—Certainly not with threats and fear mongering. Not with the dealings of an abusive husband. No, because the lady is no longer afraid. And she has realized that, in any event, it would be difficult to be worse-off than we are today, at every level. One cannot live without respect. I have always favoured a very different attitude. Let them campaign for a ‘no’ vote. Le them mount a proper campaign! There is a shocking lack of positive arguments. If you think about it, what we get are not arguments, but threats, discrediting . . . All of the verbs that appear in the headlines of Spanish newspapers have negative connotations.

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