Rory Steel

Rory Steel

On Catalonia & the EU’s Human Rights Failures

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Over the past few weeks, Conter has sought to engage with Scottish socialists on the issue of Brexit in a variety of different pieces. Rory Steel, member of the SNP and the Catalan Defence Committee, says the EU’s implicit support for Spain’s violent measures in Catalonia exposes its hypocrisies on issues related to human rights and self-determination…

The EU has been hailed as a guardian of democratic values by its supporters and political proponents, particularly during the EU referendum. But the human rights crisis in Catalonia has exposed the project’s inconsistencies and contradictions, which has been reflected in the rhetoric around the issue.

The European Commission, arguably the EU body with most power, chose not to remain neutral during the October referendum on Catalan independence despite the Spanish Guardia Civil, under instruction from the government, violently attacking voters and injuring hundreds.

The day after the vote, the Commission went as far as supporting Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy by stating: “This is an internal matter for Spain that has to be dealt with in line with the constitutional order of Spain. If a referendum were to be organised in line with the Spanish Constitution it would mean that the territory leaving would find itself outside of the European Union. Beyond the purely legal aspects of this matter, the Commission believes that these are times for unity and stability, not divisiveness and fragmentation. We trust the leadership of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to manage this difficult process in full respect of the Spanish Constitution…”

The issues with this statement should be clear: the Spanish Constitution makes it legally impossible for any part of Spain to become independent, which contradicts international law around self-determination. The hypocrisy throughout history is clear given the EU and western states endorsed the self-determination of eastern European states post-Soviet collapse. They also endorsed the same countries’ entry into the EU and its economic institutions. The institution’s geopolitical goals can’t be downplayed here. There are echoes of the Cold War in the EU’s unwavering support for a ‘unified’ Ukraine, for example, despite the delicate situation in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine.

Secondly, the EU places the onus immediately onto Rajoy to resolve matters “internally”. If he ordered the assault in the first place, it can’t be reasonably asked of him to resolve the crisis it’s caused. Furthermore, it’s not necessarily a matter for Spain to resolve. The Copenhagen Criteria, which sets out the requirements for EU membership, states that democracy and human rights are essential for any member state. There are even mechanisms to punish members and remove their rights and privileges if these conditions are broken. Spain’s actions, criticised by Amnesty International, were clear grounds for suspension.

The EU didn’t only support Rajoy on a legal basis, but also politically by calling for “unity and stability”, referring to the cause of independence by using the terms “divisiveness and fragmentation” and noting that Catalonia would find itself outside the EU. Although pro-EU sentiment has become a key element of the SNP’s independence push, there are certainly felt echoes of our own referendum when the EU made similar comments.

This is significant because it reflects that, to a large degree, the EU remains a ‘club’ of powerful governments that look out for their best interests, not in the interests of their constituents and certainly not with the aim of upholding democratic values. The motivation for member states is to protect the status quo, which is reflected by the institution’s approach to European nations and regions that desire more autonomy or independence. Many of these recognised states already have their own regional government.

For the EU to recognise the legitimacy and sovereignty of a perceived subordinate parliament and government with a clear democratic mandate would create a precedent that would revolutionise political decision making. It would take away power from centralised parliaments, whether they have become empowered through national revolution, conquest or aristocratic decision making, and localise decision making. From an anti-capitalist perspective, ultimately this could undermine the systems and institutions founded and controlled by society’s elites


There’s a cost for self-determining nations: finding themselves outside the EU and out of the club. This in itself contradicts the EU’s perceived liberal values of citizenship within Europe if a country can find itself ejected and its people stripped of their citizenship, despite their wishes to retain them. Self-determination is incompatible with European Federalists’ nation-building projects to the point in which they’re willing to undermine their own project in their efforts to save it.

In Scotland’s case, making an example of the UK and clutching onto every inch of land and consumer is considered more attractive than letting the whole island leave. The EU would be rid of a ‘difficult partner’, allowing France and especially Germany to tip scales of power further in their favour. Ironically, a hardline pro-EU Scottish Government would be unlikely to challenge EU legislation and directives that would actually stand in the way of building the independent Scotland that so many people voted for in 2014. It would also be unable to challenge them, finding themselves outweighed and outvoted in an institution where Scotland has even less power than in Westminster.

Following Catalonia’s October referendum, the heads of central government closed ranks and ensured that independence would have to be asked for as opposed to being a decision made democratically by the people themselves. Rajoy’s party, who have historical links with the dictator General Franco’s Falangists, thanked the leaders of other European nations for defending them at a meeting of leaders, ironically stating that “we have some ghosts of the past that return, like exclusionary nationalism, a version of populism that in Spain, but not only in Spain, we know well.” Antonio Tajani, President of the European Parliament, brazenly went as far as saying “it’s important to defend the unity of the country, the European homeland, the homeland of Spain, the homeland of Italy.”

In the same meeting, Rajoy warned attendees against independence movements in Italy and France reflecting their relevance across Europe and indicating that their proliferation may mean we are on the cusp of second National Revolution. But there remains ideological underpinnings for these movements from both the left and right.

Put simply, EU and national government leaders regard the idea of independence and national liberation as exclusionary and divisive regardless of the ideology that underpins nations’ motivations because they are movements that upset the existing nation-state order. Motivating autonomy movements around Europe is dissatisfaction. Capitalism is at the root of this dissatisfaction. Left wing independence movements therefore pose a double threat to the security of the established order by removing people from both the existing economic and political institutions of our time.

Independence requires a deviation from the established order – an order which motivates the likes of liberal stalwart Guy Verhofstadt. He supported the actions of Madrid and claimed in February that “the EU is the most exciting democratic project between free countries”, preaching of “European values” of democracy. The same day, the Guardia Civil again injured people peacefully protesting the Spanish King’s visit to Barcelona.

Verhofstadt and his colleagues remained silent as police battered innocent people of all ages. Discontent with the EU’s economic policies are only part of the problem. The institution’s repeated failures on issues of human rights has weakened their credibility and increased Eurosceptic sentiment. By supporting Rajoy, liberals have opened the door to fascism and authoritarianism by legitimising its response to a peaceful political expression. The EU has lost all credibility in claiming to be a beacon of liberty in the world. “European values” has become as much a buzzphrase and an attempt at contrived nation-building as “British values”.

Many of the rights the EU claims to protect existed prior to the EU’s formation. When the world watches a member state order a paramilitary police force to viciously attack its own people, how can any citizen have faith in the might of Brussels to bestow rights and protect them when it was not in their interests to do so? Human rights are constant – not circumstantial.

It’s the ordinary people of Catalonia who brave the police lines weekly on the streets across the country protecting their human rights – and most importantly, their right to self-determination. We should not look to the EU under a thin veil of citizenship, the state or the police and expect them to protect our rights, but in fact secure them for ourselves.


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