Judith Sijstermans (University of Birmingham) considers how Catalonia's new nationalist MEPs can make an impact in the European Parliament.
Catalonia’s sub-state nationalist parties have faced numerous tests since their 2017 Catalan independence referendum. Catalans have voted in a regional election (December 2017), a Spanish general election (April 2019), and municipal and European elections (26 May 2019). In each contest, two lines of conflict emerged: independentists’ persistent challenge to the Spanish state and competition between the main independence-supporting parties, Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC) and Partit Demòcrata Europeu Català (PDeCAT). The most recent European Parliament elections entrenched these existing divisions rather than offering clarity.
Of Spain’s 54 MEPs, eleven Catalan MEPs were elected including 2 from ERC (in the Ara Repúbliques coalition), 2 from PDeCAT (in the Junts per Catalunya coalition), and 1 pro-referendum, anti-independence MEP from Unides Podem. Ara Repúbliques brought together sub-state nationalist parties from Catalonia, Galicia and the Basque Country; the coalition won 5.61% of the vote in Spain. Junts per Catalunya coalition won 4.58% of the Spanish vote.
In Catalonia, pro-independence parties won a combined 49.71% of the vote. While PDeCAT came first in the European elections, ERC were winners in Catalonia’s concurrent municipal elections, winning 23.4% of the vote. The results thus provide little clarity for either the independence process or the competition between the parties.
International Recognition, Independence and the European Parliament
Despite many electoral tests, the process towards Catalan independence has stalled. The lack of response to the imprisonment of Catalan politicians continues to cause consternation among sub-state nationalists in Catalonia and beyond. This was a particularly bitter pill to swallow because Catalan independentists spent years actively seeking recognition from leaders across Europe. Ultimately, the two most vocal responses came from the Slovenian and Belgian Prime Ministers. Other European leaders maintained that it was an ‘internal matter’ for Spain.
In particular, liberal leader Guy Verhofstadt’s reaction to the vote was seen as a betrayal. This rejection was further institutionalized when the Alliance of Liberal Democrats in Europe (ALDE) expelled its member PDeCAT. The expulsion was reportedly due to corruption charges, but this has been challenged by PDeCAT, who claim that their exclusion stems from its pro-independence stance. The tensions date back a number of years, with relationships becoming particularly acrimonious when Spanish competitor party Ciudadanos was accepted into ALDE in 2016.
In the 26th May European elections, both PDeCAT and ERC focused their campaigns on the independence question. They sought to internationalize the legal fight around the Catalan political prisoners. Rather than having existing MEPs at the top of their list, both lists were topped by politicians in exile or prison. Legal battles around their eligibility preceded the election.
In the aftermath, elected MEPs Carles Puigdemont (former President of the Catalan Government) and Toni Comín (former Catalan minister for Health) were denied access to the European Parliament buildings despite temporary access being provided for other newly elected representatives. There is no clear route for jailed ERC leader Oriol Junqueras to take up his seat. The 26th of May elections solidified the impasse between Catalan independentists and the EU.
Political Parties, Competition and the European Parliament
The post-referendum landscape in Catalonia has been characterized by an increasing fight between ERC and PDeCAT. Tension between the parties centers on issues such as the role of exiled President Carles Puigdemont and the process towards independence. The history of PDeCAT and ERC engagement in the EP can be seen as evocative of their domestic differences. ERC is deeply engaged and integrated into the sub-state nationalist European political network whereas PDeCAT, more recently pro-independence, finds itself in a more difficult place between statewide and regionalist/nationalist parties.
ERC has been a member of the autonomist European political party the European Free Alliance (EFA) since 1989. Members of ERC play important roles in the EFA organization. For example, former ERC MEP and Catalan Minister for Europe Jordi Solé is EFA’s Secretary General. EFA has been vocal in its support of the Catalan exiled and imprisoned politicians. In a move of support and as a focus of its EP campaign, EFA nominated ERC’s leader Oriol Junqueras as its first ever ‘spitzenkandidat.’
On the other hand, PDeCAT sought out state-wide partners such as liberal parties in ALDE and powerful regionalists such as the Flemish Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie (N-VA) and the Scottish National Party (SNP). However, PDeCAT’s expulsion from ALDE in October 2018 and the SNP’s focus on its internal process towards independence suggests that its MEPs will struggle to mobilize influence through these bonds.
Given his base in Brussels, Puigdemont has found support from staff of the European Free Alliance and formed close relationships to the N-VA. Whether these informal relationships will extend to formal alliances is unclear. Although PDeCAT is seen as the winner of the European Parliament elections, ERC should find itself with a more assured base in the EP.
What Way Forward for Catalan Independentist Influence in the EP?
Sub-state nationalist and regionalist parties have never had an easy time accessing power in the European Union. Despite a brief flurry of mobilization in the 1990s, regional actors are excluded from the main centers of power such as the Commission and the European Council. While EFA has remained in a stable coalition with the European Greens since 1999, in this oppositional EP party group they have limited influence.
The 2019 European elections provide some opportunity for the Greens/EFA group. Given the losses faced by the two main European parties, the Greens/EFA group may help form a governing coalition. Nonetheless, EFA has 12 MEPs out of the group’s total 70 MEPs. As such, EFA’s position continues to give it only marginal influence.
Influence in the European Union may come through more informal means. While ERC ostensibly ‘lost’ to PDeCAT, its leading role in EFA suggests that it could influence the sub-state nationalist and regionalist network. Some commentators suggested that the Catalan choice to unilaterally declare independence would encourage similar choices elsewhere. During the SNP’s October 2017 conference, the BBC reported that SNP “party bosses crossed their fingers that there was no declaration of independence from Catalonia during the conference; you could almost hear the chants of ‘UDI’ welling up in the hall already.” While this suggestion is exaggerated, across the EFA membership, small and large parties follow the Catalan independence process.
However, will Catalan independentists continue to invest in informal routes of influence? The rejection and marginalization of Catalan MEPs in Brussels poses serious challenges to remaining pro-Europeanism in Catalonia. As Catalan minister for foreign affairs Alfred Bosch wrote: “If these three Catalan MEPs are not allowed to participate in the next legislature, Europe will not only have lost three active and pro-European members, but it will also have lost another chance to show the world that this is a space of freedom, democracy and support for fundamental rights.”
Institutionally and informally, Catalan influence in the EU is constrained by the post-referendum process, which continues to cause tensions with European actors, and by their difficult relations to one another.
Judith Sijstermans is currently a Research Fellow at the University of Birmingham on the ESRC "Survival of the Mass Party" project.