BARCELONA — Catalonia's feisty independence advocates are as pro-European as they come. But they are discovering that E.U. leaders are not returning their love.
Deep into a crisis in which the separatist region declared independence from Spain, only to be taken over by the Madrid government, many pro-E.U. Catalans say they are disappointed that the European Union has done little to defend them. Hopes had been high enough to lead their ousted leader, Carles Puigdemont, to seek a Brussels exile to drum up E.U. support for their cause.
But the European Union has largely followed Madrid’s lead — that the conflict is domestic and that the E.U. has little right to intrude. With Britain’s impending divorce from the E.U. and other regions contemplating breakaway attempts, E.U. leaders want to avoid any further cracks in their united front.
The conflict puts European leaders in an awkward position. They could stand by as independence advocates face a bloody response from Spanish police, as happened during Catalonia’s Oct. 1 independence referendum; or they could push hard against Madrid, which could appear to be an endorsement of a separatist effort that has split Catalonia’s population in two.
"Many people feel very disappointed by the way that the European Union, the European institutions and European governments have reacted," said Jordi Solé, a pro-independence member of the European Parliament, an elected legislative body of the E.U. where Catalan politicians have received a cold shoulder. He said he thought Catalans' faith in the E.U. had been damaged recently.
Throughout the independence effort, Catalonia’s leaders have been careful to keep the E.U.’s blue-and-gold flag alongside their own, even as they furled the national flag of Spain. Their dreams of living as a free nation are made possible in part by the European ideal that borders are outmoded, and that European citizens can travel and work from Portugal to Estonia’s frontier with Russia without once flashing a passport.
“Economic integration in Europe has helped stateless nations like Catalonia to raise the stakes when it talks about independence,” Solé said. “Because the fact that there are no borders anymore, no customs, that has decreased the potential cost of becoming an independent state.”
But it turns out that many European leaders are not interested in allowing Catalonia to join their club. Some defended Spain’s tough response to the referendum, a step that Catalan separatists found especially galling.
“Let me be clear: Violence does not solve anything in politics. It is never an answer, never a solution. And it can never be used as a weapon or instrument,” European Commission First Vice President Frans Timmermans said last month.
“None of us want to see violence in our societies,” he said. “However, it is a duty for any government to uphold the law, and this sometimes does require the proportionate use of force.”
That response caused Miquel Bada, a Catalan Internet entrepreneur, to shake his head.
“We are upset about this lack of reaction,” he said.
The E.U.’s predecessor was a particular lodestar for Catalans during the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, when many expressions of Catalan cultural identity were repressed. Spain’s 1986 membership in the European club heartened many in the region. Now, a European identity is tightly bound into a Catalan one.
“The main argument against the independence movement is the possibility of the exclusion from Europe,” said Josep Ramoneda, the director of the European School of Humanities in Barcelona. “If people think that this is possible, then support for independence falls immediately.”
Even as Puigdemont emerged in exile, he hailed European ideals in his plans to further the region's cause.
“I have decided to come to Belgium, no, to Brussels, the capital of Europe, to work without threats,” Puigdemont said at a crowded Brussels news conference on Tuesday.
But European leaders have largely lumped the Catalans in with the other whirlwind forces challenging the stability of the 28-nation bloc, which will shrink to 27 members after Britain leaves in 2019.
Belgium — where Puigdemont is still debating whether to apply for asylum — is one prime example of the dilemma. Flemish nationalist politicians inside the ruling coalition have welcomed the Catalan leader inside their country, in part because they view Catalonia’s struggle for independence as akin to their own efforts to form an independent Flanders. But Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel, a pro-unity leader of a different party, has reacted to Puigdemont’s presence in his country with exasperation.
Many European officials say they have little alternative than to endorse the rule of the Spanish state, even as they push against violence in private. They also point to opinion polls that show that less than half of Catalan residents actually support independence, even as that percentage is growing.
“If we let Catalonia become independent — but it’s not our business — others will do it, and I wouldn’t want that,” said European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, who heads the branch of the European bureaucracy charged with enforcing that member states live up to European rules, including human rights.
"I don't want a European Union comprised of 98 states in 15 years," Juncker told students in Luxembourg in mid-October, adding that he had pressed Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy not to allow the situation to spiral out
European Council President Donald Tusk echoed that sentiment after Catalonia’s declaration of independence on Friday.
“For E.U. nothing changes. Spain remains our only interlocutor. I hope the Spanish government favors force of argument, not argument of force,” Tusk wrote on Twitter.
The pushback has frustrated many Catalans.
“It was our hope that the more European we would become, the more rights and opportunities we would have,” said Ramon Tremosa, a pro-independence member of the European Parliament. “In the sense of human rights, we expected more from the European Union.”
Some Catalans with E.U. experience say they are not shocked that Europeans have not rallied to their cause. But they say they have been surprised that Europe has not pushed more forcefully against the violence during the referendum and at other efforts to suppress the poll.
“It’s quite clear that the central E.U. institutions would never support a political movement that would lead to the split of a member state,” said Albert Royo, who was the secretary general of the Public Diplomacy Council of Catalonia, the region’s foreign affairs organization, until it was shut down by Spanish authorities on Friday.
“What is happening in Catalonia is a stress test for the whole of the E.U. Because it’s quite easy for you to raise your hand when this is happening in Bosnia or Turkey or elsewhere. But when it’s happening in one of the main E.U. countries, then this is a real challenge,” Royo said.
Braden Phillips contributed to this report.