Madrid and Barcelona team up in effort to make Catalan an EU language

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The EU’s General Affairs Council on Tuesday is set to decide whether to green-light Spain’s proposal to make Catalan, Galician and Basque official EU languages.

In an unusually united stance, the national government in Madrid and the Catalan regional government in Barcelona are pushing the bid jointly. It is entirely linked to Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s quest to remain in office after last July’s inconclusive national election.

Socialist leader Sánchez needs the support of Catalan separatists to form a government and getting Catalan recognized as an EU language is one of the conditions.

EU nationals have the right to use any of the bloc’s 24 official languages to communicate with the institutions and receive replies in that language. Moreover, all EU laws, proposals and decisions — past, present and future — must be translated into the languages given official recognition.

However, winning recognition requires unanimous backing of all 27 member countries in the bloc’s General Affairs Council.

Ahead of the vote, Spain’s Foreign Service has tried to win over counterparts across Europe and the country’s official diplomats have been loosely coordinating with their Catalan counterparts. Normally, interaction between Madrid and Barcelona’s foreign representatives is rare and frequently tense. But in the lead-up to Tuesday’s vote, senior officials with knowledge of ongoing negotiations, who were granted anonymity to speak freely about ongoing negotiations like the other officials cited in this piece, said there was common determination to lock in the EU’s recognition despite the historic distrust between the two sides.

Throughout the past decade, Catalonia has attempted to establish “embassies” around the world to expand the region’s “area of geographic influence.”

The Spanish government never liked the delegations and in the aftermath of Catalonia’s failed 2017 independence referendum, it moved swiftly to shut down the offices the region had opened in Brussels, Paris, Vienna, London, Berlin, Rome, Lisbon, Washington, New York and Copenhagen.

A 2020 ruling by Spain’s Constitutional Court stated the region’s foreign action network could not “undermine state-level powers,” but in recent years Catalonia has successfully reopened its former outposts and inaugurated new ones, bringing the grand total to 21. Those are now coming in handy.

While Spanish Foreign Minister José Manuel Albares held one-on-one chats with EU counterparts, Catalan delegates in the nine outposts the region operates across Europe met with national officials and pressed their case, and Catalan Minister of Foreign Action and European Union Meritxell Serret i Aleu spoke with the heads of European consulates in Barcelona.

Despite that united effort, it is highly unlikely that there will be unanimous support for Spain’s proposal in the General Affairs Council.

Several diplomats told POLITICO they remain concerned over the potential cost of adding three additional languages to the 24 already recognized by the bloc, a move that would likely cost tens of millions of euros in translation expenses.

Other officials said they worried about a possible domino effect: If Catalan, Galician and Basque are recognized, other European linguistic groups might also demand the same official status.

Serret i Aleu said her region’s government identified the more reluctant EU members and did everything in its power to overcome their skepticism.

The regional minister said the language’s recognition is a matter of equality and justice, not money, and stressed that “Catalan is one of the 15 most spoken languages in Europe … it is a democratic anomaly that 10 million people cannot speak to the institutions in their language.”

An EU official said no country was interested in having a showdown with Madrid over the matter, but there were still too many doubts for a unanimous green-lighting of the proposal. A possible compromise may be to ask for further information on the cost and legal implications of the recognition and move further discussion into a working group — which would considerably slow progress on the matter.

That solution is unlikely to satisfy the Catalan government and the separatist parties whose support Sánchez desperately needs. Serret i Aleu said Barcelona would hold Madrid accountable if the proposal does not pass.

“The responsibility lies with the Spanish government, which has to fulfil its promises,” said Serret i Aleu. “They have brought it to the Council table, but it is not enough … You have to do everything possible to make it prosper.”

Spain’s government did not respond to POLITICO’s request for comment.

Barbara Moens, Gregorio Sorgi and Jakob Hanke-Vela contributed reporting.