Commission President Juncker doesn't want to encourage separatists elsewhere

By Fortune Editors and Reuters
October 13, 2017

The European Union’s top bureaucrat said Friday he did not want Catalonia to become independent, because that would encourage other regions to do the same and make the EU ungovernable.

“If we allow Catalonia – and it is not our business – separate, others will do the same. I do not want that,” EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said in a speech at Luxembourg University.

“I wouldn’t like a European Union in 15 years that consists of some 98 states,” he continued. “It’s already relatively difficult with 28 and with 27 not easier, but with 98 it would simply be impossible.”

The EU’s statistics agency Eurostat lists the bloc as consisting of 98 major regions.

The EU’s small but powerful central apparatus has often found useful allies in regional governments around the bloc in its struggle for power with the governments of the 28 member states. Much of the EU’s budget is targeted directly at the bloc’s poorer regions. Catalonia is, however, one of the richest regions in Spain. While its separatist movement owes much to cultural and historical factors (Catalans have their own language, suppressed for years by the Fascist government in Madrid after the 1936-1939 civil war), there is also widespread resentment at having to subsidize Spain’s poorer regions.

Read: Make Your Mind Up on Independence Bid, Spain’s Prime Minister Tells Catalonia

Juncker said he was “very worried” about separatist tendencies in Europe and had encouraged Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to ensure the situation doesn’t get out of control.

Catalonia’s regional president Carles Puigdemont had declared independence on Tuesday night, only to suspend the declaration second later, claiming that he wanted to seek “dialogue” with Madrid first. Rajoy had responded on Wednesday by threatening to revoke Catalonia’s right of self-rule under Spain’s 1978 constitution – but also holding back until he had clarity from the government in Barcelona.

Puigdemont is under pressure from his government partners in the far-left CUP party to press ahead regardless. The CUP only holds 10 seats in the 135-seat Catalan parliament. But Puigdemont’s minority government relies on its support to push through legislation and cannot win a majority vote in the regional parliament without its backing.

Referring to Catalan calls for EU mediation, Juncker said the Commission could not mediate if only one side asked it to do so. The EU has said it has confidence in Rajoy to resolve what it sees as an internal issue.

Read: Hostage to Catalonia? No Way, Says the EU

“If the Commission or European Council President (Donald) Tusk were to get involved with only one party asking for mediation, this would lead to a great rejection of the European Union,” Juncker said.

Spain’s government, meanwhile, admitted that the current stand-off is starting to hurt the economy. Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Saenz de Santamaria warned after a weekly cabinet meeting that: “The events that we are experiencing in Catalonia make us more prudent…If there were no quick solution to this issue we should be forced to lower expectations of economic growth for the year 2018.”

The government expects Spain’s economy to grow 2.6 percent in 2018, making it the fastest-growing of all of Europe’s large national economies.

De Santamaria also said that hotel reservations in Catalonia were currently down 20 percent to 30 percent from levels before the referendum, a much sharper decline than the one that followed the recent Islamist terror attack in the Catalan capital.

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