Europe's crisis of confidence is starting to have consequences

Jimmy 3x3 | 7 Views | 2017-10-13T11:15:35+00:00
German MEP: Catalonia out of EU if it leaves Spain

(CNN)A lot has been happening in Europe this week. Much of it has tested the European Union's ability to handle a crisis, though little has reflected well on Brussels.

As Catalonia's president was trying to side step a self-inflicted confrontation with the Spanish government, Brussels was busy fumbling the Brexit ball.

Carles Puigdemont's referendum -- declared illegal by Spanish courts -- has propelled him and his nation's separatists into a showdown with Mariano Rajoy, the Spanish Prime Minister, just as the British and EU Brexit negotiators were arriving at their own impasse on Britain's divorce bill.

A preoccupation with their own woes over Brexit perhaps explains why senior EU officials appeared tone deaf to Spain's separatists -- who, it should be remembered, are EU citizens.

Indeed, major issues have been clogging up the EU's inbox lately, each one competing for the attention of Europe's top guns.

President Donald Trump appears on the verge of unraveling one of Europe's smugger foreign policy successes: the nuclear deal with Iran, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

Smug, because while America led the actual deal-making, it was European companies who were among the first to race in to Tehran and cut big business deals. If Trump does throw a wrench into the Iran deal, it is EU nations that will feel the pinch first.

Then there is the Ukraine crisis and European relations with Russia. The EU has looked flat-footed for some time now on coming up with any kind of plan to stop the rot.

Perhaps, however, the weightiest and most distracting item in the inbox exposes some of Europe's deepest fault lines: competing French and German visions of a more integrated Europe and the very future of the continent.

More is being expected of the EU now than in recent years and when put to the challenge, walking whilst talking has thus far not come easily.

The EU's stumbles seemed most stark in the week leading up to Puigdemont's halfway announcement of independence.

On October 1, Spanish police injured more than 800 Catalan voters while they tried to cast their ballot in the independence referendum.

In the following days, senior EU officials appeared to condone Spanish police brutality against the Catalans in the unconstitutional referendum. Frans Timmermans, the EU Commission's vice president, went as far as saying that the police had a right to use "proportionate force."

Timmerman's tepid response is typical of what many EU critics have come to expect from a bureaucracy that often appears more in touch with its own aspirations than those of the citizens it represents.

The following week, Britain's Brexit negotiators arrived in Brussels for another entanglement with their EU counterparts.

Trenches are being dug and positions are beginning to freeze. Both French and German leaders have worsened the chill, seemingly throwing cold water on the EU's top negotiator Michel Barnier's initiative to talk future trade before the UK comes clean on what it will pay to settle its exit bill.

Back in Barcelona, Catalans were weighing the cost and meaning of their own apparent exit bill, paid in blood, to exercise what they see elsewhere in Europe, like Scotland, as a democratic right to vote for independence. Instinctively, they looked to the EU to support them.

They might as well have called the man in the moon.

Already preoccupied by Brexit, Iran, Ukraine and its own future, the EU managed the equivalent of raising its collective head, flicking its eyes in Madrid's direction, announcing the referendum and the violence a Spanish constitutional issue, and slumping back to Brexit talks.

For those who thought the EU a mightier and more omnipresent entity, this may all come as something of a shock.

Yet Catalan President Puigdemont, who feels he's answered European Council President Donald Tusk's call to avoid an escalation by seeking talks rather than immediately declaring independence, believes the EU is obliged to help him deliver the independence for which his people voted.

Perhaps Puigdemont is unfortunate that just when he needs the EU to help keep alive Catalan dreams of independence, the EU is fighting its own separatist tide.

Yet whether the EU realizes it or not, Puigdemont's pleas for it to mediate between him and Madrid are exposing either a lack of understanding of the gravity of the situation or an inability to deal with it.

Both are a damning indictment of a supranational entity like the EU.

Puigdemont's speech in the Catalan Parliament Tuesday indicates he has rolled the dice, arguably a little late, that policy -- not police -- is the path to separation. Rajoy's answer from Madrid points to the reverse being on his mind, which makes EU mediation to manage the separatist genie all the more urgent.

In the hours ahead of Puigdemont's speech, Rajoy's government deployed state police to Barcelona's High Court. They stood side by side with Catalonia's local police, the Mossos, who are the building's regular guards. But Madrid's message was clear: if we don't like what we hear, the two police forces may face off.

At a time when supranational institutions like the EU, the UN and NATO are coming under increasing pressure and having their validity called into question, the EU has an opportunity to stand tall and demonstrate the stability it was created to provide.

Lines are being drawn and this is no time for the EU to look away and mumble about Brexit or Iran. It's time for Brussels to grasp that opportunity and shore up Europe's self-confidence -- before that starts crumbling too.

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