Do Catalonians Know the Implications of Leaving the EU after Independence from Spain?

Published 25 October 2017
By Dr. Narin Idriz/Tezcan

In the aftermath of the independence referendum on 1st of October, relations between Catalonia and Spain are spiralling down into a vicious circle signalling the birth of yet another intractable problem in Europe. A complex problem in which local (Catalonian) law intertwines with national law (Spanish constitutional law), EU law, as well as public international law. Leaving all other aspects aside, and jumping far ahead of current events and developments, it is worth to briefly discuss the possible future relationship between an independent Catalonia and the EU.

It was striking to see the EU flag at the pro-independence demonstrations prior to as well as after the referendum, despite the disappointment of many for the lack of a strong and unequivocal criticism from the EU for the violence used by Spanish authorities during the referendum. On the face of it, the pro-independence demonstrators seemed also to be pro-EU, which makes one wonder whether they were aware of the implications of Catalonian independence for its future relationship with the EU? And whether knowing that would have made any difference?

Spain Likely to be the Main Stumbling Block in the Catalan Bid for EU Membership
The EU position on the issue was revealed when the then European Commission President Barroso declared in the wake of the 2014 Scottish referendum that a new independent state “would become a third country with respect to the EU”. That position was repeated in the specific case of Catalonia as well. The implications of Catalonia becoming a third state vis-à-vis the EU cannot be underestimated. This will mean that Catalans will no longer be EU citizens and will not be able to enjoy the free movement rights attached to that status. They will not be part of the internal market. To become an EU Member State, Catalonia will need to officially apply for membership in line with Article 49 TEU. The bad news for Catalonia is that in the EU accession process each of the current Member States is able to veto the accession of a third country. While an independent Scotland might have a membership perspective in the aftermath of Brexit, that prospect will be rather theoretical than real for Catalonia in view of the likely Spanish veto.

Possibilities for Future Economic Cooperation also Constrained by Spain
What will that mean for the newly independent Catalan state, which was one of the most-prosperous and well-integrated regions into the EU internal market? It will probably mean that it wants to remain so; perhaps by joining the European Economic Area (EEA), the league of third states that are most closely integrated with the EU. However, the Spanish veto will be looming large in the accession to the EEA as well. In fact, it will loom large in any endeavour that tries to effectively integrate the Catalan market into the internal market (for instance by negotiation of an Association Agreement, which requires unanimity under Articles 217-218 TFEU). The best Catalonia can hope for will be a free trade agreement, which can be adopted based on qualified majority voting under Article 207 TFEU. It is highly doubtful that such an agreement will meet the needs of the Catalan economy.

Importance of a Truthful and All-Encompassing Debate
The internal Catalan debate on the implications of independence was not reflected in detail in the English speaking media; hence, the assumption that the focus might have been on independence from Spain rather than the possible ramifications of Catalonia leaving the EU. Given the importance of the EU for individuals (as EU citizens) as well as economic actors in almost all sectors of the economy, it is imperative that everyone becomes aware of the consequences of one’s vote. Recent experiences with referendums demonstrate that in the absence of truthful, informative and all-encompassing debates, they unfortunately turn out to be instruments serving demagogues rather than democracy.

** Dr. Narin Idriz/Tezcan is a researcher at the T.M.C. Asser Institute within the strand “Human Dignity and Human Security in International and European Law”.  **