Weekly Brexit Briefing (Week Beginning 2nd October 2017).

This article was kindly given to the SSCA by Daniel Dalton MEP, Conservative MEP for the West Midlands (daniel.dalton@europarl.europa.eu).

The fragile Spanish state imploded this week, Conservative Party conference saw greater unity on the government's Brexit approach and whilst the Prime Minister struggled with her vocal chords, the European Parliament resorted to shouting loudly in an attempt to make its voice heard on the European stage. 

Catalonia risks upstaging everything on the European stage after the independence referendum called by the regional government against the wishes of the national government in Madrid became violent as Spanish police forces tried to stop the poll taking place. Hundreds were injured and many disturbing images emerged of police officers attacking people, young and old, at polling stations. At times the Spanish police were engaged in running battles with the local Catalan police forces. Despite the disruption it is estimated that nearly 40% of Catalans voted with a 90% yes vote recorded, giving what the Catalan leadership believes is a mandate for independence. However the poll was illegal, as it wasn't approved by the Madrid government who do not recognise the result and therefore it is also impossible to independently verify the results. The future is therefore very uncertain as the referendum has only served to inflame tensions which have lain dormant in Spain since the Franco era, and remind everyone of the fragility of the Spanish state that has been an ever present theme since the days of Ferdinand and Isabella. It seems certain that Madrid will not allow Catalonia to leave nor will it allow a legal referendum to take place, which means the unrest is likely to continue for some time, paralysing Spain and poisoning the domestic political debate. For the European Union, despite widespread silence on the subject, it is likely to become a crisis as large as the Greek debt crisis in 2015.

Catalonia is unlikely to gain independence in the short term, however if it does, it will be forced to leave the European Union, with little prospect of being readmitted any time soon, given the fact that Spain yields a veto over the accession of new members. It will be an immediate and disorderly exit with Spain probably guaranteeing little chance of good relations for the foreseeable future. Catalonia will not have the luxury of a two year negotiation period prior to leaving nor the prospect of future trade deals. It would represent the hardest 'Cexit' possible and would happen immediately if it was recognised internationally as an independent nation. However, given Spain's opposition, it is unlikely that any independence process for Catalonia would be smooth and if it happened at all, it would likely only be after many months of disruption.

The disruption in Catalonia didn't stop the European Parliament focusing its attention on a resolution about the status of the Brexit negotiations. In a predictably confrontational resolution, the Parliament criticised the UK government's position, reiterated the European Commission's three priorities for the first round of negotiations (citizen's rights, Ireland and the Budgetary settlement), bemoaned the lack of progress and formally demanded that the European Commission does not move to the second round of negotiations that would cover the issues the UK really needs to start discussing. Namely, the transitional and future trading relations.

The blunt reality is the European Parliament has no formal role in the negotiations, although it will have to approve the final agreement, and it is desperate to insert itself into the talks as part of the long-running power struggle between the EU institutions. The Parliament received a telling off from EU Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier for its confrontational approach to the UK, but it is merely fulfilling its traditional role as EU chief guard dog, with more bark than bite. When the time to make a deal comes, the parliament is unlikely to go against the wishes of the EU27 governments or the European Commission. 

It was a relatively quiet week on the Brexit front at Conservative Party Conference, with the focus on domestic political issues and greater unity around the government's Brexit negotiating position in the wake of the Prime Minister's Florence speech. 

With a German Chancellor distracted by what are likely to be protracted and fractious coalition negotiations, and a less than peaceful constitutional crisis in one of the core Eurozone countries, Brexit no longer looks like the biggest problem in the EU's in-tray, for now at least.

Daniel Dalton MEP