What happened to the EU, anyway?

Wasn’t it supposed to be a beacon of democracy and human rights? 

José Manuel Durão Barroso and Jean-Claude Juncker
José Manuel Durão Barroso and Jean-Claude Juncker

I don’t often start an article by quoting a Serbian president (in fact, it isn’t often that anything said by Serbian presidents even reaches my ears at all). But when I do, you can rest assured it will be a quote worth reproducing in full: 

Here it is: “The question every citizen of Serbia has for the European Union today is: How come that in the case of Catalonia the referendum on independence is not valid, while in the case of Kosovo, secession is allowed even without a referendum? 

How did you proclaim the secession of Kosovo to be legal, even without a referendum, and how did 22 European Union countries legalize this secession, while destroying European law and the foundations of European law, on which the European policy and EU policy are based?”

President Aleksander Vucic said that at a press conference on Monday: the day after scores of Catalonians were injured in violent clashes with the Spanish police, during an independence referendum that quickly turned into a violent crackdown.  

The only part he is arguably wrong about is the emphasis on Serbian citizens. It is not just they who are asking that question... nor is the Catalonian secession issue the only example of the European Union employing entirely different weights and measures when it comes to assessing a region’s – any region’s – right to self-determination. 

Another thing I don’t often do – well, not often enough, anyway – is to say ‘I told you so’. On this occasion, however, I feel I have to make an exception. I myself had asked very much the same question a couple of years ago: when it was the Scots’ turn to hold a reference on independence from the United Kingdom.

It is worth remembering that, at the time, the EU was stolidly (and actively) opposed to Scottish independence... with former Commissioner Jose Manuel Barroso warning that a newly independent Scotland would have to reapply for EU membership, etc. 

Well, about a year later – when the first rumblings of an imminent Catalonian secession began to be heard – I wrote: “Suddenly, ‘freedom’ [has become] a thing to be laughed to scorn. That’s roughly what happened in Scotland last year… and the same thing is happening in Spain right now: where the region of Catalonia faces an election in which pro-independence parties are expected to win comfortably. [...] Even recent history has been forgotten: consider, for instance, how utterly different Europe’s reaction had been to the prospect of an independent Kosovo as recently as 2008…”

How utterly different, indeed... from both Scotland and Catalonia, as it happens. Consider, for instance, the reaction of Baroness Ashton, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, to a 2010 UN court ruling affirming the legality of Kosovo’s secession:

“The future of Serbia lies in the European Union. The future of Kosovo also lies in the European Union.”

What is that, if not the clean opposite of Barroso’s earlier argument about Scotland? 

In that scenario, the Commission reasoned that the future of independent Scotland lay very firmly outside the European Union, while the rest of the UK was to remain an EU member indefinitely (how ironic, then, that the rest of the UK went on to vote for Brexit... another democratic exercise that drew the ire of the European Commission in its day... while the pro-EU Scots are now considering a second independence referendum...)

Anyway: I could go on with examples to illustrate the sheer extent of the double standards employed in such cases. 

Today, for instance, European Commissioner Jean-Claude Juncker tells us that the Catalonian referendum was ‘illegal’. 

In so doing, he is merely adopting the verdict of the Spanish Constitutional Court – not to mention the official government line pushed by Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy (who, for fairly obvious reasons, has every interest in blocking the vote) – and making it the official position of the European Commission. 

But it is not, and cannot be, the last word on the matter. The Spanish Constitutional Court has no jurisdiction over Brussels; and besides, there are higher levels of justice where such issues can be pursued... namely, the UN’s International Court of Justice (which had eventually ruled in favour of Kosovo, paving the way to formal international recognition of the breakaway republic in 2010).

Again, the discrepancy in Europe’s approach is so visible it is almost blinding. In Kosovo’s case, the EU was content to wait for the UN court ruling before welcoming the newly independent state in open arms. Even though Serbia (like Spain today) held the view that the secession was illegal... and that’s how its own judicial system saw things, too.

Yet where the Commission under Barroso rejected the verdict of the Serbian courts, and gave credence to the international court instead... the same Commission under Juncker now goes about things the clean opposite way. 

It unilaterally accepts the Spanish courts’ verdict as Gospel truth, and simply rejects all other arguments: without even pausing to savour the fact that the Catalonians (who are also EU citizens) have exactly as much right as Kosovar Albanians to determine the future course of their own nation.    

Such is the enormity of these and other discrepancies, that the EU must now answer the question asked by Vucic – and by countless others in Europe, who perhaps needed the sight of a brutal crackdown on democracy on European soil to finally realise that something is deeply wrong somewhere.

But there is another glaring question that cannot go unanswered. Juncker’s non-reaction to the shocking violence we all witnessed in Catalonia – and the ear-shattering silence of nearly every single European head of state – is not merely perplexing... it is alarming, to say the least.

Even if we accept, for the sake of argument, that the referendum really was ‘illegal’: in itself, that does nothing to condone or even explain the gross overreaction by the Spanish authorities. 

There are, after all, ways and means of enforcing the law. The first step is to actually target the people breaking it, instead of just of any old random civilian. 

By pressing ahead with an ‘illegal’ referendum (if such it was), the only people to have actually violated any law were the organisers... NOT the Catalonian citizens who exercised their civil rights in a democratic plebiscite. 

And even then: the logical response to an ‘illegal’ referendum would be to simply refuse to acknowledge the result afterwards... not to try and stop the referendum from taking place, and certainly not to beat the living crap out of everyone who tried to vote. 

Regardless of one’s actual opinion on Catalonian secession itself – for, against, indifferent, whatever – what’s at issue here is the way the dilemma was handled. If the EU is going to accept its own citizens being savagely beaten by the police of one of its own member states, without even so much as deploring the violence... or even expressing any audible concern at all... then we have to add another question to the growing list.

What the hell happened to the EU, anyway? Wasn’t it supposed to be a beacon of democracy and human rights? 

Don’t its founding principles also include: “liberty, democracy, a respect for human rights and basic civil liberties, and rule by law”? And – just to add irony to insult – wasn’t there also something about ‘the protection of minorities’?

Well, what we witnessed last weekend was the complete spontaneous combustion of all those principles in one fell swoop. I can only conclude that the European Union we are living in today is a very far cry from the European Union we voted to join in 2003. 

But then, that was a democratic referendum, too. And there were questions about its legality at the time as well. 

Funny, how the EU never seems to have any problem accepting and respecting a democratic decision... so long as the result goes the EU’s way.

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