Exclusive: European Commission changes Vice President’s Catalonia remarks after pressure from Madrid

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   By Martin Kelly

European Commission officials have been accused of bowing to pressure from Madrid and issuing false statements of denial over comments made by Vice President Viviane Reding relating to international law and Catalonian independence.

The claims, from a Spanish journalist who recently interviewed Ms Reding, centre around remarks attributed to the senior EC Official who was responding to a suggestion that Catalonia would lose its EU membership if it won independence from Spain.

By Martin Kelly

European Commission officials have been accused of bowing to pressure from Madrid and issuing false statements of denial over comments made by Vice President Viviane Reding relating to international law and Catalonian independence.

The claims, from a Spanish journalist who recently interviewed Ms Reding, centre around remarks attributed to the senior EC Official who was responding to a suggestion that Catalonia would lose its EU membership if it won independence from Spain.

In a recent interview, Viviane Reding, the Luxembourgeois vice-president of the European Commission – who was on a visit to the Andalusian parliament – was asked whether international law meant that Catalonia would have to leave the EU in the event of the region achieving independence.

According to the journalist, Federico Durán Basallote, Ms Reding responded to his question by dismissing the suggestion, saying international law said no such thing.

The interview led to an article in Spanish newspaper Diario de Sevilla in which Ms Reding’s comments were portrayed as strengthening arguments in favour of newly independent states, already members of the EU, remaining members.

Ms Reding’s interview was a severe blow to the credibility of the Spanish and UK governmental claims, both of whom have insisted that Catalonia and Scotland would be automatically expelled from the EU on attaining independence, and would have to re-apply for entry.

Ms Reding’s statement was seized on by independence leaning news vendors in Catalonia as well as many independence campaigners in Scotland, as evidence that both would remain EU members should either attain independence.  However, soon after the article appeared in the Spanish newspaper, pressure from Madrid and the Commission forced a swift retraction from Spanish newspaper editors.  According to the Commission, Ms Reding had been misunderstood, and more importantly mis-quoted.

Following the publication of Ms Reding’s interview, the European Commission, through the office of its representative in Spain, Federico Fonseca Morillo, embarked on a media campaign to re-write Ms Reding’s interview to expunge her comments on how international law might apply to Scottish or Catalan independence.

According to the journalist who carried out the original interview, the Madrid Government was furious at Ms Reding’s remarks, which undermined the contention of the Spanish government that an independent Catalonia would be expelled from the EU and have to re-apply for membership.

The Spanish government then exerted pressure on the office of José Manuel Durão Barroso, the President of the European Commission, to force them to withdraw Ms Reding’s comments about international law.

In a letter sent to the Diario de Sevilla on October 1, following publication of the interview, Mr Fonseca said it was “important to mention Vice-President Reding’s exact words”, and then gave a section of the interview, entirely omitting the key sentence in Ms Reding’s reply to the question about international law.

In a further letter, published in the Spanish language edition of the Economist magazine on 8 October, Mr Fonseca Morillo explicitly denied that Ms Reding had uttered the sentence in question, and complained that it had been “extrapolated” into reports on Ms Reding’s interview.

In his letter Mr Fonseca Morillo said:

“I have read with surprise the article which affirms that Vice President Reding said that the Vienna Convention does not specify that a new state resulting from another European state must leave the EU. I wish to clarify that Reding never said this, although some media outlets have extrapolated it from an interview in various Andalusian newspapers.”

However, far from being “extrapolated”, the statement by Ms Reding was reported as spoken, in the original article published in the Diario de Sevilla.  According to the newspaper, asked whether international law would mean Catalonia having to re-apply for EU membership, Ms Reding replied:

Oh come on, it [international law] doesn’t say anything like that. [our italics] Please, resolve your internal political problems in Spain.  I trust in the European mindset of the Catalonian people.”

Quizzed repeatedly by Newsnet Scotland to clarify what was said, several senior European Commission officials repeated the denial that the Vice President had made any comments regarding international law.

In an email to Newsnet Scotland, Meena Andreeva who is the official spokesperson for Viviane Reding, wrote: “I wish to clarify what Vice-President Reding said during an interview in Seville on 26 October …

Question: But international law says that if you go out of a regional entity you have to go out of the EU?

Viviane Reding: Come on, please solve the internal political problems of Spain in Spain.  I trust the European mindset of the Catalonian people.”

Asked by Newsnet Scotland if Ms Reding was denying saying that there was no international law which says that Catalonia would be out of the EU, Ms Andreeva replied:

“I have supplied the English original of what Vice-President Reding said during the interview which was conducted in English language (therefore this is not a translation but the original transcribed wording).”

She added: “The newspaper which published Vice-President Reding’s interview has published a correction of their reporting on the matter and so did El Economista.  The issue has therefore been clarified from our perspective and there is nothing more to add.”

However, when Newsnet Scotland contacted the journalist who conducted the interview and asked him to comment on the Commission’s denial, he said “That’s a lie”.

Federico Durán Basallote commented: “In my opinion, the European Comission has tried to change the words of Mrs Reding.”

He added: “The problem was that Madrid got really angry with Reding and pressed Durao Barroso [EC President] for a rectification on behalf of the European Commission.”

In support of his claim, the Spanish journalist has provided a full audio recording of his interview with Viviane Reding.  Newsnet Scotland can reveal that, contrary to official EC denials, the EC Vice President did indeed dismiss suggestions that international law would mean the automatic expulsion from the EU of a newly independent Catalonia.

In the audio recording, Mr Basallote is clearly heard putting to the EC Vice President the suggestion that a newly independent Catalonia would not continue as an EU member, to which Viviane Reding replies:

“Come on, Come on – it doesn’t say anything like this.  Please solve the internal political problems of Spain in Spain.  I trust the European mindset of the Catalonian people.”

If authentic, and there is nothing to suggest this recording is anything other than genuine, then this incident will dent confidence in the EC to take an impartial role in the constitutional debates currently raging in both Scotland and Catalonia.  There will be dismay at the apparent willingness of senior EC Officials to allow their spokepeople to issue statements that are in fact false.  It will also fuel speculation that the EC is willing to act when pressurised by larger states, in order to weaken arguments in favour of independence.

The suggestion by Federico Durán Basallote, that the European Commission has been pressurised by Madrid into altering a statement that has been viewed as helpful to Catalonian struggle for independence, will raise fears that the Commission is being influenced by the larger parent states in these constitutional disagreements.

There is already concern at the lack of clarification from EU Officials on the status of both an independent Scotland and an independent Catalonia.  The vacuum has led to several claims from Unionists that Scotland would be forced to re-apply for EU membership and that we would be forced to join the euro.

In a recent exchange with Newsnet Scotland, a spokesman for EC President Durao Barroso said that the Commission was not commenting on the Scottish situation due to the referendum negotiations then taking place between Edinburgh and London.

However, with these negotiations now over there will be an expectation that officials will soon confirm whether an independent Scotland will, as expected, remain in the EU.

Any continued silence will fuel fears that the EC is deliberately allowing speculation and scares to take root.

 

What are the Vienna Conventions?

The Vienna Conventions are a series of international treaties defining international law on treaties, promulgated under the auspices of the United Nations.   They are not incorporated into EU legislation.

The much quoted provision that a new state does not inherit the treaty rights and obligations of the original state – and hence the argument that a newly independent Scotland would have to leave the EU – comes from the Vienna Convention on Succession of States in respect of Treaties.  This convention was promulgated in 1978 and defines the rights and obligations of new states with respect to treaties entered into by the state from which they became independent.

The convention distinguishes two categories of new state, states which attain independence as a result of de-colonialisation, and new states resulting from the division of an existing state (defined as “cases of separation of parts of a state”).

Article 16 of the convention establishes that newly independent post-colonial states are subject to the “clean slate” rule, and rules that the new state does not inherit the treaty obligations of the colonial power.

On the other hand, the new states which result from “separation of parts of a state” are to be considered equal inheritors of the treaty rights and obligations of the original state.  The Scottish and Catalan governments argue that a newly independent Scotland or Catalonia would clearly fall within this second category.

Neither the United Kingdom nor Spain have ratified the 1978 Convention.