The Minister of Foreign Affairs, José Manuel Albares, will have to do a real exercise of tightrope walking when, this Tuesday, he defends in Brussels the Spanish proposal to make Catalan, Basque and Galician official languages of the EU. Forced by the demands of the pro-independence parties, which have in their hand the investiture of Pedro Sánchez, the acting Government requests that these three languages be recognized as the languages number 25, 26 and 27 of the Union. A bloc which is multicultural and multilingual but in which, for the same reason, the European partners are very reluctant to open the door to new official languages — there are currently 24 — which could unleash similar demands within their own countries: 8% of the Union's citizens belong to a national minority and 10% speak one of the 60 regional or minority languages of the European territory.
Thus, it is almost certain that in the debate on Tuesday at the General Affairs Council the member countries will postpone the decision on Catalan, Basque and Galician, kicking the ball forward, and that will be the first litmus test to test the Government's negotiations with Junts and ERC: It will be seen if the pro-independence parties take it as a slamming door and break off the negotiations or agree to wait.
Many of the Twenty-seven have shown in recent days their reluctance to analyze this issue in a hurry, and ask for time to evaluate all the implications of a step that comes at a complicated time: less than a year before the European elections and when they are still to close some of the great reforms pending a very complicated mandate, by the pandemic first and the Russian invasion of Ukraine later. In addition, several candidate countries to join the EU – with their own languages – are knocking more and more insistently on its doors. And, finally, the Spanish application has an added difficulty: the 24 languages that are now recognized as official in the EU institutions are all official in all their respective States, unlike Catalan, Basque and Galician, which are only official in certain Spanish autonomous communities, not in the whole of the State. "There are many unanswered questions regarding the political, legal, financial and practical implications of such a decision," European sources summarize the situation.
The good news for Madrid is that no one seems to want to give Spain a resounding no on Tuesday. Above all, those partners who would welcome a revalidation of Pedro Sánchez's mandate that distances the entry of the extreme right into another great European Executive. But even they point out that it is not possible to make such a complex decision, and that it requires unanimity, "in such a short time." As Spain presides over the Council of the EU this semester, it can mark the times in meetings like this and not force a vote if it does not see it clearly, as everything indicates that it will happen.
The million-dollar question is whether what comes out of the General Affairs Council, foreseeably some kind of agreement to study the issue further, will be enough to convince Junts, who wants proof that the caretaker government is serious about making a reality of an old demand that has repeatedly clashed with European partners. Because this is not the first time that Spain seeks greater recognition of Catalan and even tries to formalize its co-official languages before the EU. And, in fact, as a result of the previous attempt, launched in 2004, the three languages already enjoy an intermediate, administrative status, which, although it does not legally bind the EU because they are not official, does facilitate their use in many of the institutions, although it does not allow a key issue for Junts: being able to speak Catalan in plenary sessions and meetings of the European Parliament.
"I wish good luck to whoever has to negotiate this, because it will be practically impossible," predicted a source who participated in the main previous attempt. It was in December 2004, when the Government of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero requested "the official recognition in the European Union of Spanish languages other than Spanish that have official status in Spain". To this end, he proposed, as is done again, "that the current Regulation 1/1958, which establishes the language regime of the institutions of the Union, be amended".
It was not achieved, and that the atmosphere seemed more propitious than ever: although France was, as it still is, allergic to any gesture that its own independentists, especially the Corsicans, can use in their favor, the then president, Jacques Chirac, "wanted to please Zapatero, because he came after Aznar, with whom he had a personal animosity, especially for Iraq and Morocco ", Remember this source, witness of the negotiations of the time. But even so, he adds, Chirac "could not say yes" to the full recognition of Catalan and other co-official languages in Europe.
"In a very elegant way, he set conditions: that it had no legal effects, so it had to be an administrative agreement that was not part of the European acquis, and also that Spain assumed all the expenses," he recalls of some requirements that, six months later, ended up marking the final agreement. Despite arriving down, Spain still had to fight until the last moment, especially with the Netherlands. "We did everything humanly possible, from there it will be very difficult to pass," considers this source about the new attempt to make Catalan and other languages official.
The administrative agreements agreed in 2005, negotiated institution by institution, thus allow, among other things, that citizens can address those in one of the co-official languages and receive a response in the same language, in a translation paid for by the Spanish State. Also, provided that the interpretation service is notified in advance and Spain pays for it, a Spanish representative, when speaking at a meeting of Community institutions, may do so in one of the co-official Spanish languages.
But there was then no agreement in the European Parliament, where "the parliamentary groups did not consider it appropriate," recalled last week the current high representative of Foreign Policy of the EU and then president of the European Parliament, Josep Borrell. Even so, Catalan, institutional sources point out, enjoys the highest recognition that the EU has ever given to a non-official language since 1990, when it was already recognized as a language of "communication". It was also decided to establish the first "antenna" of the European Parliament in Barcelona. What the Catalan separatists, Junts now and ERC are looking for in an attempt before the European Parliament last year, is to be able to use Catalan in plenary sessions and internal negotiations. The strongest argument for rejecting this has always been, recall witnesses of previous negotiations, that the use of Catalan could not be allowed in the EU if in Spain it could not be done in institutions such as the Congress of Deputies. The acting government has now swept away that objection: from this Tuesday, co-official languages will begin to be used in the Spanish parliamentary headquarters.
On Friday, Spain made a further gesture by offering to assume the expenses involved in the recognition of Catalan, Basque and Galician as an official language. Sources close to the negotiations, both in Madrid and in Brussels, are confident that all these gestures will serve to convince Junts of the will of the acting government.
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