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Catalonia declares independence: Spain dissolves Catalan parliament, sacks its president Puigdemont

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The Spanish political crisis unfolds along the expected lines. Reaction followed action. Power struggle in Spain is taking a new twist.

As Catalan leaders held an independence referendum, defying a ruling by the Constitutional Court which had declared it illegal, Spanish PM Mariano Rajoy has abruptly dissolved the Catalan parliament and calling snap local elections after MPs there voted to declare independence.

Rajoy has also fired Catalan leader President Carles Puigdemont and his cabinet. Rajoy also announced the sacking of the Catalan police chief. He said the unprecedented imposition of direct rule on Catalonia was essential to “recover normality”.

The head of the local police force has also been removed, Rajoy said, although whether the 17,000-strong Mossos d’Esquadra will take orders from Madrid remains to be seen. Catalan police chief Josep Lluis Trapero and two independence leaders were questioned by a judge in Madrid. They were not charged but the independence leaders were detained.

People of Catalonia have voted 1 October for independence.  The final results from the 1 October referendum in the wealthy north-eastern region suggested 90% of the 2.3 million people who voted had backed independence. Turnout was 43%. 90% were in favour of independence. Others boycotted the vote after the court ruling. A motion declaring independence was approved on Friday with 70 in favour, 10 against, and two abstentions in the 135-seat chamber. Several opposition MPs supporting the Madrid rule boycotted the vote.

Thousands celebrated the declaration of independence on the streets of Barcelona, Catalonia’s regional capital. As the outcome of the vote became clear, people popped open cava, the local sparkling wine. The same crowds that cheered each Yes vote from Catalan MPs were reportedly booing Rajoy as he made his announcement. There have been pro-unity demonstrations too, with protesters in Barcelona waving Spanish flags and denouncing Catalan independence.

In Madrid many people have begun flying the Spanish national flag from their windows and balconies, to show their support for keeping the country united. There is some sympathy for the Catalan cause, mostly because of the police crackdown during the referendum. But far louder are calls to prosecute those pushing for independence. It’s a move which many Spaniards, like their government, are convinced was illegal.

On Friday the Spanish Senate granted President Mariano Rajoy’s government the power to impose direct rule on Catalonia, and after an emergency cabinet meeting Rajoy spelled out what that would entail. “The president Carles Puigdemont had the opportunity to return to legality and to call elections,” he said. “It is what the majority of the Catalonian people asked for – but he didn’t want to do it. So the government of Spain is taking the necessary measures to return to legality.” Regional elections, including in Catalonia, arescheduled for 21 December.

After the 1 October referendum, Puigdemont signed a declaration of independence but delayed implementation to allow talks with the Spanish government. He ignored warnings by the Madrid government to cancel the move, prompting Rajoy to first announce his plans to remove Catalan leaders and impose direct rule.

Having been sacked by the federal government in Madrid, Puigdemont has urged supporters to “maintain the momentum” in a peaceful manner. Freedom seeking separatists say the move means they no longer fall under Spanish jurisdiction. But the Spanish Constitutional Court is likely to declare it illegal, while the EU, the USA, the UK, Germany and France all expressed support for Spanish unity.

Spain’s prime minister may have hoped warning Catalonia against declaring independence would be enough. Now that Catalonia has declared independence President Mariano Rajoy has to follow through on his pledge to impose direct rule, knowing this is highly risky. Mariano Rajoy argues that Catalan separatists left him no choice. He had to act, to return the region to “legality”, as Madrid puts it. But actually doing that will be complex and highly fraught. It’s why Rajoy called for calm in Spain, after the Catalan vote for independence. He is acting with broad, cross-party support though, and public backing.

Meanwhile Spanish prosecutors say they will file charges of “rebellion” against Puigdemont next week

Can Catalonia be a soverign nation?

Catalonia looks like it has already got many of the trappings of a state. A parliament, fags, an able leader Carles Puigdemont. The region has its own police force, the Mossos d’Esquadra. It has its own broadcast regulator, and even boasts a series of foreign “missions” – mini embassies that promote trade and investment in Catalonia around the world. Catalonia delivers some public services already – schools and healthcare, for example. There’d be much more to set up in the event of independence, though. Border control, customs, international relations, defence, central bank, Inland revenue, air traffic control, etc.. All of these are currently run by Madrid. There won’t be any problems for Catalonia to launch all these infrastructures.

Catalonia is certainly rich compared with other parts of Spain. It is home to just 16% of the Spanish population, but 19% of its GDP and more than a quarter of Spain’s foreign exports. It punches above its weight in terms of tourism too – 18 million of Spain’s 75 million tourists chose Catalonia as their primary destination last year, easily the most visited region.

In Spanish “Madrid nos roba” is a popular secessionist slogan – “Madrid is robbing us.” The received wisdom is that comparatively wealthy Catalonia pays in more than it gets out of the Spanish state.

Catalonia is one of Spain’s richest, most distinctive regions with a high degree of autonomy. But many Catalans feel they pay more to Madrid than they get back, and there are historical grievances, too, in particular Catalonia’s treatment under the dictatorship of General Franco. Catalans are divided on the question of independence – an opinion poll earlier this year said 41% were in favour and 49% were opposed to independence.

Carles Puigdemont assumed the office of President of Catalonia in January 2016.He leads the Catalan government. There are 12 ministers, with portfolios including education, health, culture, home affairs and welfare. The Catalan government employs 28,677 people, comprising civil servants and other staff.

Six parties are represented in Catalonia’s 135-seat regional parliament. Three of them are pro-independence. Elections were held on 27 September 2015 and “Together for Yes” (JxSí), a coalition of two parties and civic organisations, focused on achieving independence from Spain, won the largest number of seats – 62. It was short of an absolute majority and required support from the pro-independence, anti-capitalist Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP), with 10 seats, to form the government.

The second largest party in the parliament, with 25 seats, is the liberal anti-nationalist Citizens-Party of the Citizenry (Cs). The Socialists’ Party of Catalonia (PSC-PSOE), with 16 seats, and the People’s Party of Catalonia (PPC), the Catalan affiliate of Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s People’s Party, with 11 seats, also oppose independence. Catalonia Yes We Can (CSQP), a left wing-green coalition, which won 11 seats, is in favour of self-determination for the Catalan people.

The Catalan parliament, where separatist MPs make up the majority, officially declared independence while the Spanish Senate was meeting to discuss the issue in Madrid on 27 October. Catalan MPs opposed to independence boycotted the vote. The motion called for the transfer of legal power from Spain – a democratic monarchy – to an independent “republic of Catalonia”. That means they no longer recognize the Spanish constitution. Within hours, Madrid had responded.

Tarragona has one of Europe’s largest chemical hubs. Barcelona is one of the EU’s top 20 ports by weight of goods handled. About a third of the working population has some form of tertiary education. It’s also true that Catalans pay more in taxes than is spent on their region. In 2014, the last year the Spanish government has figures for, Catalans paid nearly €10bn (£8.9bn) more in taxes than reached their region in public spending. Would an independent Catalonia get the difference back?

Some have argued that even if Catalonia gained a tax boost from independence that might get swallowed up by having to create new public institutions and run them without the same economies of scale.

Perhaps of greater concern is Catalonia’s public debt. The Catalan government owes €77bn (£68bn) at the last count, or 35.4% of Catalonia’s GDP. Of that, €52bn is owed to the Spanish government. In 2012, the Spanish government set up a special fund to provide cash to the regions, who were unable to borrow money on the international markets after the financial crisis. Catalonia has been by far the biggest beneficiary of this scheme, taking €67bn since it began.

Not only would Catalonia lose access to that scheme, but it would raise the question of how much debt Catalonia would be willing to repay after independence. That question would surely cast a shadow over any negotiations. And on top of the sum owed by the regional government – would Madrid expect Barcelona to shoulder a share of the Spanish national debt?

Economic pressure could slow the process of cessation from Spain  Catalonia is a major economic factor now. It accounts for about a fifth of Spain’s economic output, but Catalonia also has a huge pile of debt and owes €52bn (£47bn; $61bn) to the Spanish government.

Even though Madrid has powerful economic levers, Catalonia is one of Spain’s wealthiest regions. On 5 October a business exodus from Catalonia began. The banks Caixa and Sabadell, along with several utility companies, decided to move their legal headquarters out of Catalonia. Spain has made it easier for businesses to leave and more than 1,600 companies have now copied the banks’ move.

Foreign affairs, the armed forces and fiscal policy are the sole responsibility of the Spanish government. The division of powers between the central government in Madrid and the regional government in Barcelona is not as clear-cut as it is in some other countries with devolved authorities such as Germany or the UK.

In the UK, for example, the government in Westminster cannot interfere in Scottish education policy because education is fully devolved. But in Spain, the Spanish constitution takes precedence if there is a clash with any region – something that the Catalan government resents.

Is there still room for compromise?

Not exactly, and neither side appears in the mood for it now.  Puigdemont urged international mediation – but there is no sign of that, as Madrid does not want it. The EU – traditionally wary of secessionist movements – sees the crisis as an internal matter for Spain.

In practice, for any region it is very hard to achieve independence under international law. Kosovo discovered that – even though it had a strong case on human rights grounds.

Amid speculation that the Catalan parliament might unilaterally declare independence, some of the region’s banks decided to move their legal headquarters to other parts of Spain. Meanwhile, the government in Madrid says any such declaration would have no effect.

The independence movement was galvanized by a 2010 Spanish Constitutional Court ruling which many Catalans saw as a humiliation. The Spanish government could still make a gesture to appease Catalan separatists and calm the situation. That ruling struck down some key parts of Catalonia’s 2006 autonomy statute. The court refused to recognize Catalonia as a nation within Spain; ruled that the Catalan language should not take precedence over Spanish in the region; and overruled measures giving Catalonia more financial autonomy.

The court acted after Rajoy’s Popular Party asked it to. Now, to defuse this crisis, Madrid could reinstate the elements of autonomy that were taken from Catalonia.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy held a press conference, declaring the rule of law would be restored in Catalonia and announcing Madrid was assuming direct control of the region. He also said the Catalan President Carles Puigdemont and his cabinet had been dismissed, while a snap election has been called for the region on 21 December.

Spain’s Senate had already voted to trigger Article 155 of the 1978 constitution – for the first time in Spanish history. It enables Madrid to suspend Catalonia’s autonomy.

Spain’s Constitutional Court is expected to rule the Catalan independence declaration illegal. The court had already outlawed the vote itself, which took place on 1 October. It is not clear how quickly or effectively Spain can reassert central control over Catalonia. But Article 155 gives the Madrid government authority to act immediately.

As Catalans are deeply divided over independence, Madrid can expect some significant support for its actions in the region. The conservative Rajoy government has the backing of the opposition Socialists (PSOE) in this crisis.

There was widespread anger over the tough methods of Spanish police on polling day. There was video of them dragging some voters away from ballot boxes and hitting them with batons. The volatile atmosphere in Barcelona could explode if Spain adopts such strong-arm tactics to impose its will now.

Catalexit?

The economic uncertainty created by the prospect of independence has already led to two banks deciding to move their head offices out of the region. At least part of that uncertainty is over Catalonia’s relationship with Europe. Two-thirds of Catalonia’s foreign exports go to the EU. It would need to reapply to become a member if it seceded from Spain – it wouldn’t get in automatically or immediately. And it would require all EU members to agree – including Spain.

Some in the pro-independence camp feel that Catalonia could settle for single-market membership without joining the EU. Catalans may well be happy to pay for access, and continue to accept free movement of EU citizens across the region’s borders. But if Spain chose to, it could make life difficult for an independent Catalonia.

There is also the question of currency. In 2015, the governor of the Bank of Spain warned Catalans independence would cause the region to drop out of the euro automatically, losing access to the European Central Bank.

Normally, new EU member states must apply to join the euro.

They have to meet certain criteria, such as their debt not being too large a percentage of their gross domestic product (GDP). Even if they meet those criteria, a qualified majority of eurozone countries has to approve their entry. In theory, that means even if Catalonia became a new EU member state, it may well take time to rejoin the eurozone – and Spain and its allies could block that. In practice, we just don’t know what would happen.

Nobody has ever declared independence from a member of the eurozone then asked to rejoin as a new country. Could Catalonia use the euro without joining the eurozone? It does happen.

Some countries such as San Marino and Vatican City do so with the euro zone’s blessing, since they’re too small to ever become EU member states. Others, such as Kosovo and Montenegro, use the euro without the EU’s blessing, and so don’t have access to the European Central Bank. Again, whether either solution would be practical in Catalonia remains to be seen.

Observation

It is the biggest political crisis in Spain for 40 years. Nothing has been seen like it since the end of General Franco’s dictatorship. The disputed Catalan independence referendum on 1 October was the trigger, but mutual hostility had been brewing for years. So how could events unfold in Catalonia now?

Parliament in Catalonia has declared independence while the Spanish senate has approved a government proposal to reassert control over the region after its disputed independence referendum. After dismissing the Catalan government and president, The Spanish government put its national media company and police force under the control of Madrid, .

Spain is divided into 17 regions, each with directly elected authorities. Catalonia, in the north-east of the country, has one of the greatest levels of self-government in Spain. It has its own parliament, government and president, police force and public broadcaster.

Catalans have a range of powers in many policy areas from culture and environment to communications, transportation, commerce and public safety.

Spain could opt for incremental steps to suspend Catalonia’s autonomous powers, to avoid a huge backlash. The constitution does not specify a time frame for “temporary” direct rule.

With tensions so high it is likely that the separatists will organize strikes, boycotts and more mass rallies in response to Madrid’s actions. Their aim will be to put pressure on Madrid to negotiate.

Now that the region would eventually secede, the world focus is concentrated on whether Catalonia would be able to stand on its own two feet. None has rejected the scenario that Catalonia would be able to be strong nation.

Hopefully Spain would adopt a neutral position to let Catalonia cede from it without nay bloodshed and further complications and become an independent nation to be eligible for entry into EU.

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European Union Could Share its Solid Economic Benefits with Moldova, Ukraine and Georgia

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European Union has, at least by territory and population, expanded as the European Council overwhelmingly decided to grant Moldova and Ukraine, with the possibility of Georgia, candidates’ status to join the bloc. Current, the European Union consists of 27 members and has an estimated total population of about 447 million. Moldova, Ukraine and Georgia, all former Soviet republics, will together add approximately 50.8 million to the current population of the European Union.

As former Soviet republics, the three attained their political independence and within the international laws, must be considered with respect based on the principles of their territorial integrity and national sovereignty. While the granting them their new status after official requests from them, it has indeed sparked debates especially in the Russian Federation. 

European Union leaders have formally agreed to grant candidate status to Ukraine, as well as Moldova, although the two former Soviet republics face a long path before joining the bloc. Ukraine applied to join the bloc just days after the Russian invasion on 24 February, and the process from application to candidacy has gone through at record speed.

Undoubtedly the new status has opened wide, most possibly, better doors and a platform to spring up with economic development through integration into European Union. President of the European Council, Charles Michel, noted: “it is a historic moment, today marks a crucial step on your path towards the European Union. Our future is together.”

The official congratulated the leaders of Ukraine and Moldova. Regarding Georgia, the European Council “decided to recognize the European perspective of Georgia and is ready to grant candidate status once the outstanding priorities are addressed,” Michel said. “Congratulations to the Georgian people,” he said. “A historic moment in EU-Georgia relations: Georgia’s future lies within the EU.”

The European Commission on June 17 recommended that the summit grant a candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova. It is a “symbol of hope” to support the Ukrainians while the country had a long way to go before actual accession. A few days later, Speaker of Moldova Parliament, Igor Grosu, announced that Moldova ready to join new sanctions, mostly in finance and banking, against Russia.

“We will show solidarity with the EU, as our status and European aspirations oblige us. Of course, we will join [any new sanctions] meant to stop the military operation. We are seeking to contribute to this goal by any diplomatic means,” Grosu said following a decision by the EU.

Moldova’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs, Nicu Popescu earlier said the East European nation could not fully join anti-Russian sanctions due to its weak economy. European Union candidate status now provides Moldova with access to world’s most developed market. It offers similar new economic opportunities to bothe Ukraine and Georgia.

In one of her warm-hearted illuminating speeches at a media briefing, President Maia Sandu emphasized: “Candidate country status gives us a clear direction of our development, support on this path, and most importantly, hope. We are a small and vulnerable country, which would feel more secure when it becomes part of the European family, in which we could count on support from all members and institutions. Belonging to the EU also means access to the richest and the most developed market in the world.” 

Moldova, however, expects more support from the European Union to improve the wellbeing of its people and provide preconditions for developing the business environment. “The situation will not change overnight after candidate status has been granted, as a lot of hard work is still ahead,” Sandu said, attributing the current hardships in Moldova to the conflict in Ukraine that began late February.

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky hailed the news as “a unique and historic moment”, adding “Ukraine’s future is within the EU” while the French President Emmanuel Macron said that the decision by EU leaders sent a “very strong signal” to Russia that Europeans support Ukraine’s pro-Western aspirations.

At least, they have joined the ‘European family’ that offers practical warmth for sustainable development. Ukraine has already signed an agreement with the European Union on joining its LIFE Program, an international funding instrument for the environment and climate action, whose budget on environment protection projects for 2021-2027 amounts to €5.43 billion, Ukrainian media reported with reference to the Environment Protection and Natural Resources Ministry.

Ukrainian Environment Protection Minister Ruslan Strilets and European Commissioner for Environment, Oceans, and Fisheries Virginijus Sinkevicius signed the agreement.The ministry has over 15 concrete proposals to be transformed into relevant projects to be presented for consideration under LIFE Program.

“Ukraine has received great support and colossal capabilities from the European Union for restoring not only the environment but also live nature in Ukraine. This is something for which there has always been a lack of funding. LIFE is a powerful financial tool of the participating countries. This means great confidence in Ukraine,” Strilets said. “This should help us develop more new projects which local businesses could be engaged with. Therefore, we’ve made a very important step today.”

In the near future Moldova, Ukraine and Georgia have the possibility to access the benefits from the Global Gateway, a new European strategy directed at boosting smart, clean and secure links in digital, energy and transport sectors and to strengthen health, education and research systems across the world.

It is in line with the commitment of the G-7 leaders from June 2021 to launch a values-driven, high-standard and transparent infrastructure partnership to meet global infrastructure development needs. The Global Gateway is also fully aligned with the UN’s Agenda 2030 and its Sustainable Development Goals, as well as the Paris Agreement.

In addition, late June the he Group of Seven economic powers – the U.S., Germany, France, the U.K., Italy, Canada and Japan – made some progress in bringing their counterparts from their five guest countries closer to Western views on sanctions against Russia. The G-7 is committing  themselves to support the new members especially Ukraine. 

Ahead of his trip, Biden authorized another US$450 million in weaponry to be sent to Ukraine, bringing the total U.S. commitment to US$6.1 billion since the start of the war. Offering a concrete template, the G-7 combined are aiming to invest US$600 billion in public and private capital for infrastructure projects over the next five years, with US$200 billion of that total coming from the United States.

According to European lawmakers interviewed by local Russian media Izvestia, this step has broad support from the EU. Meanwhile, Russia views the move ambiguously. On the one hand, it sees EU membership as tantamount to striving for NATO, on the other hand, European integration is a purely economic issue and does not raise any concerns.

“We’ll see, we’ll analyze the consequences,” former Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin told Izvestia. “The context is important; it is not as harmless as it might have seemed three years ago. Decisions are being made amid a sanctions offensive and against everything Russian,” he added.

That being said, the European Union noted that obtaining candidate status is only the first step towards membership. Engin Eroglu, a member of the Committee on Foreign Affairs in the European Parliament, in an interview with Izvestia said that the process of gaining membership to the EU does not mean automatic entry, but it means that the country has started pro-European processes and reforms, which are partially financed by Brussels.

The granting of candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova has angered other countries that have been striving to join the European Union for several years now. For example, the European Commission has so far denied this status to Georgia, the newspaper writes.

“Tbilisi, to put it mildly, was not happy about the refusal, but this will not be a reason for any deterioration in relations between the European Union and Georgia,” Head of the Department of Integration Studies at Moscow State University of International Relations (MGIMO) Nikolay Kaveshnikov told Izvestia.

Russia consistently expresses fierce opposition to this European membership over the past several years. President Vladimir Putin had declared Ukraine to be part of Moscow’s sphere and insisted he was acting due to attempts to bring the country into NATO, the Western alliance that comes with security guarantees.

Granting Ukraine and Moldova candidate status to join the European Union looks like nothing more than a scam by the West, according to Russian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova. “Scam is such a wonderful word, seeing that the numerous decisions taken by the West are more like combination of a destructive, provocative nature, rather than well-thought-out steps,” the diplomat said, speaking to the Sputnik Radio.

“I think that’s certainly their case,” she added, “Given these maneuvers, these zigzags that we now are witnessing from the West with regards to Moldova, Ukraine, and Georgia, it is no longer necessary to prove anything in terms of market conditions. There is a direct link between economics and politics. And this is exactly what they have always stood against.” She described the actions by the European Union as infringement of Russia’s territorial integrity, and as encroachment on former Soviet space and territory.

On the distinctive opposite side, Russia sees no risks for itself in the fact that Ukraine and Moldova have been granted EU candidate status, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said at a press conference following talks with his Azerbaijani counterpart Jeyhun Bayramov on June 24 in Baku.

“Our position has always been that the European Union is not a political bloc, unlike NATO. The development of its relations with any countries that wish to do so does not create any threats and risks for us,” Lavrov said in reply to a media question. “Of course, we will realistically consider the European Union’s behavior and monitor the real steps it takes and how the candidate countries act: whether they comply with these requirements or still try to show their independence.”

These new European Union members have some strategic significance. Moldova is a landlocked country in Eastern Europe. It shares borders with Romania to the west and Ukraine to the north. Ukraine, with a coastline along the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov to the south and southeast, respectively could be used for economic benefits by the European Union.

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EU-Australia Relations: Strategic Security Cooperation

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Over the last decade, security cooperation between Australia and the EU has grown. Increasing security and defence cooperation with governments outside the EU is something that the EU has looked into. Third-country participation in the “Common Security and Defence Policy” CSDP civilian and military crisis management missions and operations, as well as the exchange of sensitive information, are all examples of this.

Australia participates in CSDP missions and exchanges classified information with the EU. This emphasis on ties with other countries is a key aspect of EU Global Strategy, which asks its allies to assist promote the rule-based global order. “External partnerships” must be restructured and the EU must “engage with key partners, likeminded countries, and regional groupings” in order to share this responsibility.

Australia stated that it would work with “like-minded” friends like the European Union to address global concerns. The EU’s security mandate relies heavily on crisis management. For the EU to be seen and effective in managing crises, it must be able to draw in non-EU countries and establish links with them. Third-country participation in CSDP missions and the signing of Framework Participation Agreements on crisis management show how actors outside the EU regard the EU as a crisis management actor and validate the EU’s crisis management function.

The EU’s external measures to safeguard freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law, and human rights must have this external validation if they are to gain “credibility and normative significance.” To “strengthen its own ability to bear responsibility and share the cost with security and defence partners,” the EU needs the support of third countries. European Union “strategic autonomy” refers to the EU’s ability to act and collaborate with international and regional partners but also working independently when necessary, according to the EU’s Security and Defence Implementation Plan, published in November 2016. EU credibility is bolstered as a result.

Ad hoc agreements, which took a long time to draft, are now the preferred method of enabling participation, instead of the time-consuming ad hoc agreements that were previously used. Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop announced the beginning of FPA negotiations with EU counterparts, Catherine Ashton, saying that “North Africa & Middle East have highlighted the value in Australia & EU cooperating closely to react to international crises” at the time of the announcement.

The EU and Australia, according to the FPA, share a common understanding of the threats they face and the objectives they should focus on. Australian participation in two CSDP missions has been made possible by this convergence. Some argue whether or not the European Union and Australia see each other as strategic or priority partners in the fight against global and interconnected security threats, as well as whether or not their geographical domains of interests and aims align.

In two CSDP missions, Australia’s involvement has been capped (and duration as with EUCAP Nestor). CSDP military operations are not permitted. EU crisis management will take a new step forward with participation by Australia in a CSDP military mission. The EU CSDP’s military efforts have primarily focused on developing military capabilities or deploying naval forces. As long as EU member states are unwilling to engage in large-scale military operations, this pattern will continue.

A naval operation in the Strait of Hormuz has been proposed recently by the EU as a means of protecting freedom of navigation and calming tensions between Iran and the United States. We could see Australia participating in an EU military operation as this occurs. As seen by its August 2019 decision to join the US-led mission in the Strait of Hormuz, Australia has a strategic interest in maintaining marine flow.

The EU-Australia security partnership is strengthened because to FPA. European Union and Australian cooperation will have a solid foundation thanks to the FPA, which recognizes common interests in international peace and security. Both EUCAP Nestor and EUAM Iraq have involved Australia in crisis management, but more effort is required. Both parties must agree that Australia will be invited to more than just these two missions. The EU’s CSDP missions are strengthened by its partners, who help the EU to be a responsible global actor. However, it also makes it necessary for Australia and the EU to work together more closely to identify common interests on a variety of issues.

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Finnish Plans for an Arctic Railway  –  Geopolitics Are Intervening

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Authors: Juho Kähkönen and Soili Nystén-Haarala*

NATO Applicant Finland is an Arctic Country with No Access to the Arctic Ocean.

Finland, with a land border with Norway, Sweden, and Russia, is sometimes described as an island because it is located on the northern coast of the Gulf of Finland and the eastern coast of the Gulf of Bothnia of the Baltic Sea. The 832-mile border with Russia has gained plenty of attention in the present geopolitical situation. The lifeline from the Baltic Sea to the North Sea goes through the narrow Danish Straits. Finnish cargo is mainly transported to and from the ports of the Baltic Sea. Before the war on Ukraine, Finnish trains ran to the east up to China through Russia.

Access to the Arctic Ocean is limited to the narrow roads through Norway, which are not qualified for the Trans-European Transport Network (TEN-T), the major European transport corridors. The closest European TEN-T corridor turns west to Sweden at the bottom of the Gulf of Bothnia. Knowing this, it is no wonder that dreams of access to the Arctic Ocean emerge every now and then.

Map of existing infrastructure

Most recently, the idea was embraced  when the government of Juha Sipilä, with Anne Berner as the Minister of Transportation and Communications, was in power (May 2015 – June 2019). Anne Berner negotiated the future of transportation infrastructure and the Arctic Ocean railway with her Nordic colleagues in Norway and Sweden. In the early phases, the regional politicians in Finnish Lapland mostly either supported or adopted a positively curious attitude towards the proposed railway.

Nevertheless, the plan was later buried with both Norwegian and Finnish reports for their respective ministries in 2018. The reports found the plan lacked feasibility because of excessive costs. However, the Regional Council of Lapland still wanted to maintain the option for a railway in their regional plan. This attempt finally failed in 2021, and the plan was officially buried also in Lapland. The discussion on the plan was strongly polarized between the supporters and the opponents.

Vision of Arctic Railway

The way the prospects of the plan were presented reflected the ideas of economic connectivity and interdependence between Europe, Russia, and China – dreams, which after the Russian brutal attack on Ukraine turned out to be built on false perceptions of an economically dependent Russian Bear and an everlasting peace in Europe. Even after the Russian occupation of Crimea in 2014, the future was full of expectations for economic prosperity; the opening of the Northeast Passage shortening the distance between Rotterdam and Shanghai by 26 percent and between Rotterdam and Yokohama by 37 percent. In addition to the railway, there is a plan to build a tunnel from Helsinki to Tallinn under the seabed. The Arctic railway, together with the tunnel, would connect the Asian and European markets through Finland and the melting Northeast Passage.

Chinese funding was sought for both of these mega infrastructure investments in railroad transportation. Chinese investments in Finland, however, have almost all failed, either because of financial difficulties of the Chinese investors or reservations of the Finnish Military and the Ministry of Defense. For some reason, both Chinese and Russian investments in land property often happened to target areas of strategic military importance. Additionally, one of the five options for the Arctic Ocean railway presented in the reports from 2018 was building a connection across the border to the Murman railway connecting Murmansk and St. Petersburg. The connection was not considered dangerous because rails are easy to dismantle, and cyberwar is a more likely prospect than traditional land warfare. However, Russia’s attack on Ukraine has shown that land warfare in Europe has not disappeared, and Russian military forces might arrogantly try to invade the country across the whole 832-mile-long border.

However, the actual opening of the Northeast Passage is, under any circumstances, still far in the future. It is not yet possible to navigate those dangerous waters without the expensive aid of Russian ice-breakers. Furthermore, European politicians turned a blind eye to the growing geopolitical tensions,  for instance, the increasing threat of nuclear weapons in the Kola Peninsula next to Finnish and Norwegian borders. Nevertheless, it is common knowledge that the Arctic and its raw materials are of highly strategic military and economic importance for Russia. Even after the occupation of Crimea in 2014, Arctic cooperation was in the Arctic Council maintained as “the separate island of cooperation” while political tensions between superpowers increased. The Russian attack on Ukraine underlines the political risks associated with the transportation routes through the Russian economic zone. It is no wonder Finland is now applying for NATO membership, and developing the eastern transportation connection is forgotten.

National Interests Suppress Indigenous Rights

The Arctic Railway plan met strong resistance from the Sámi people, the only Indigenous people in Europe. As the supreme political body of the Sámi in Finland, the Sámi Parliament saw the railway as a threat to their culture and the reindeer herding in the heart of their culture. Oddly enough, the resistance and support from such allies as the Greenpeace seemed to come as a surprise to the supporters of the railway in Helsinki.

The region itself has a long history of ignoring the Sámi and seeing them as troublemakers resisting plans to develop the region. The Sámi are a small nation (77 00 – 103 00 depending on calculations) living in the northern areas of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and the Kola Peninsula in Russia. In Finland there are slightly more than 10 000 registered Sámi who vote in the elections of the Sámi Parliament.

Reindeer herding is a livelihood that requires much space as pastureland; reindeer can move freely in forests, which mainly belong to the State in the Finnish Lapland. Reindeers migrate and live with lichen, plants, and mushrooms. These half-tame animals are the property of reindeer herders, which as a profession is not ethnicity-based in Finland. Reindeer herding increasingly competes with other industries and infrastructure building. Reindeer herding is not just a traditional livelihood but also an industry in the market economy. Although the Sámi lives in a modern way in mixed communities, they still have strong kinship ties and an awareness of their own culture, which is distinct from the mainstream culture. The railway building option (Rovaniemi – Kirkenes) the Finnish Government preferred would have crossed the area of several Sámi reindeer herding cooperatives and disconnected the reindeer migration routes. It would have weakened the profitability of reindeer herding, a livelihood that has kept the remote areas of Lapland inhabited.

Throughout history, the Sámi have experienced racism and contempt from the main population. Their languages were not taught at schools before the 1970s. Just like Indigenous children in North America, they were sent to boarding schools, far away from home, to study in Finnish. Their voices were not heard, and their rights were not respected, for example, when the rivers in Lapland were harnessed for waterpower and forests were cut because of national interest after the World War II. Bad treatment has left scars and a considerable mistrust of the state power. The Sámi have fought for their rights in Norway, Sweden, and Finland, however, and have managed to make the state power recognize their rights.

In the new Finnish Constitution of 1994, the Sámi were granted cultural autonomy. A special Homeland Area was established in Upper Lapland. Within this area, the Sámi have the right to education in their own languages and the right to deal with authorities and in courts in their languages. They also have a Sámi Parliament, the representative self-government body, which plans and implements the cultural self-government guaranteed to the Sámi as an Indigenous people. The Sámi Parliament must be consulted when any project in the Homeland might affect their culture.

Reindeer herding and, for example, fishing are recognized as a part of Sámi culture. The duty to negotiation was drafted based on the Free, Prior, and Informed Consent (FPIC) principle of the ILO Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, 1989 (No. 169). However, the Sámi Parliament and the Finnish government interpret the duty to consult differently way. The Sámi interpret the FPIC as a duty to ask for permission from the Indigenous population. The authorities, who should consult the Sámi, see it as a duty to consult and strive for a jointly agreed decision. If a joint agreement cannot be reached, the authorities can continue with the project. An even bigger problem is that authorities do not always remember to consult the Sámi. The existence of this duty is still relatively unknown, and if we add the earlier ways of conduct to ignorance, it is no wonder that the Sámi are suspicious of the Finnish state.

The Arctic railway plan is a typical example of conflicted relations between the Sámi and Finnish authorities. The sudden appearance of the plan astonished the Sámi and caused anxiety among reindeer herders about the future of their business and livelihood. The state authorities were also surprised by the strong Sámi reactions and emphasized that there was no project yet, only a discussion. The Sámi brought their position to international awareness through various media channels, while the supporters of the railway in Lapland boosted the idea to the EU and in Asia. The plan highlighted a conflict in the four municipalities of the Sámi Homeland Area, where the Sámi, with one exception, form only a minority of the population. The burial of the plan at the governmental level was mainly due to economic reasons, but abolishing the railway from the long-term regional plan can be seen as the victory of the Sámi and reindeer herding.

Is the Plan Actually Buried?

Following the Russian war on Ukraine, the multiple times buried attempt to build a railway from Finland to Norway has gained interest again. Member of Parliament from Lapland Mikko Kärnä brought the Arctic Railway back to the discussion by stressing that Finland would face significant challenges if transportation on the Baltic Sea were disturbed. This viewpoint reflects the understanding of Finland as an “island.” In practice, 80 percent of Finnish foreign trade goes through the Baltic Sea and as the transportation connection in northern Finland is poor, a railway to Norway would strengthen Finnish security of supply.

Soon after this comment, the Parliamentarian Committee on Transportation and Communication organized a visit to northernmost Finland, where the Arctic railway had been planned. The committee chair, MP Suna Kymäläinen explained the reason for the visit telling that Finland had to prepare for the scenario that traffic on the Baltic Sea would decline and analyzed how the export and import would be organized in such a situation. Currently, the roads connecting Finland to Norway are narrow and in poor condition.

The ongoing war reveals how the planned Arctic Railway is not tied only to the melting Arctic Ocean and shipping through the Northeast Passage. Instead, northern connections show how Finland is not an island but how the infrastructure development has focused on southern Finland around the capital for decades. The situation should not surprise anyone in Helsinki, as the authorities and politicians from the north have underlined for decades how weak the infrastructure in the north is and criticized how resources have been mainly used to develop southern infrastructure.

There is only one short rail track on the Finnish side still to be electrified, but the Arctic Ore Railway as well as the port of Narvik already operate at the limit of their capacity. The fact that the Swedish state mining company LKAB is already talking about strengthening the railway might indicate that the state is on board. Renovating the overloaded railway is, however, going to be a long and expensive project. Sweden has gradually built and electrified the railway from Southern Sweden to the Finnish border. The main driver of this project was the needs of the highly developed industry in northern Sweden – at least up till the port of Luleå.

The connection from Luleå to the Finnish border, however, could also have connected Sweden to the Russian market across Finland. Whereas for Finland, this track through Sweden to Narvik harbor, suddenly turned out to be a strategic corridor to the west in case the Baltic Sea corridor would close. As Sweden applied for NATO membership together with Finland, northern connections have a robust defense interest. In case of war, the Norwegian port of Narvik would be a priority to supply resources to the European Arctic. In Norway, a long-time NATO member country, the transport connections to Finland have re-emerged in the defense debate. The new geopolitical reality reveals how the northern connections would be essential for the national security of supply. However, we should not forget the rights of the Sámi people.

Geopolitics Amplify the Clash between National Interest and Sámi Rights

The discussion about the Arctic Railway reflects the polarized relationship between the Sámi and the Finnish authorities. The Sámi feel that they are never safe and that this time, their rights might be sacrificed at the shrine of national safety. Despite the new concerns about the security of supply, the state authorities now seem to take smaller, more realistic steps to improve transportation connections. A connection through the Swedish Ore Railway to Narvik in Norway is now a realistic option.

Perhaps a quicker way to improve access to the Arctic Ocean is to renovate national road 21 (E8) from Tornio to Tromsø harbor in Norway along the Swedish border. The demands to invest in the road, which is in a dangerously poor condition, had not been noticed in Helsinki before the Russian attack on Ukraine. Strengthening the existing infrastructure to the Arctic Ocean is supported in northern Finland. Improving existing roads and railways does not considerably increase the damage to reindeer herding either. The increased needs for security of supply, however, indicate that the rights of the Sámi are not the first priority in national transportation development. The Arctic Railway across the Sámi Homeland is on the agenda again. Strengthening democracy and taking the minorities’ differing worldviews seriously would be a more civilized way of coexisting in the western world and something the Nordic countries could be expected to do better.

*Soili Nystén-Haarala, Professor of Commercial Law, Dean, Faculty of Law, University of Lapland.

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