Borderline: Scotland and Catalonia
On May 6th, Scotland’s parliamentary elections may trigger a new divisive chapter in Europe, once again honing focus on a nationalist province seeking to gain independence.
After a recent turbulent period for the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP), Nicola Sturgeon seems to have a firm hold (once again) on the leadership of the pro-independence movement. Although SNP popularity is not at its strongest, independence seems to be a critical issue for a big part of the Scottish electorate. But how does this correlate to Catalonia in north eastern Spain? Other than failed attempts at independence, Catalonia and Scotland seem to have very little in common.
On the 18th of September 2014, the first referendum on Scotland leaving the United Kingdom failed with only 45 per cent of voters opting for leave. But the tone and voting predictions for the upcoming parliamentary elections in May suggest the pendulum has now swung significantly in the other direction. Opinion polls conducted regularly since before the first referendum seven years ago show a steady building of support for leave, especially after the critical 2016 Brexit vote. The majority of Scots voted to remain in the European Union but now find themselves out of it given the close vote to leave the EU among all UK residents. During the 2014 Scotland independence referendum a key argument for remaining part of the United Kingdom was continued membership of – and access to – the European Union. Now that has gone, the majority of Scots want another chance to decide on independence. Combine this with the deteriorating opinion in Scotland of the UK’s Prime Minister Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson and pro-independence parties looking set for a majority in Holyrood (Scotland’s parliament), and a crisis for the United Kingdom over a second referendum appears more and more probable.
But Scotland isn’t the only small European province attempting to establish claims for an independent nation. Just a short flight away, Catalonia’s pro-independence movement is undoubtedly keeping a keen and careful eye on developments in Scotland, while slowly regaining its composure. But what is happening in Catalonia now?
Catalonia’s 2021 regional parliamentary elections held in February delivered a boost for pro-independence parties. Although the pro-united Spain Socialist party received the most votes, the share of the votes belonging to pro-unionist parties fell below half. In contrast, the three main pro-independence parties (Esquerra Republicana, Junts per Catalunya and Candidatura d’Unitat Popular) received enough votes to reach an absolute majority. Currently, these three parties are seeking agreement and a way forward.
Catalonia, though, has some fundamental barriers in the way of their pro-independence movement. Back in 2017, a push for a referendum to decide on the independence of the autonomous region was successful. But before any ballots could be cast, Spain’s central government, led by Mariano Rajoy of the Partido Popular, claimed the referendum to be unconstitutional and deemed any results illegitimate. The result was a clash between Catalan voters and Spanish riot police under direct orders to confiscate any ballot boxes they could lay their hands on. The day of violence will forever be known in Catalan history as L’1-O (referring to the 1st of October 2017).
Since the 2017 Catalan referendum, Spain has sentenced and incarcerated several politicians involved in the organisation of the referendum, but not all accused have been imprisoned. Most notably, former president Carles Puigdemont remains in enforced exile in Brussels along with several other Catalan politicians scattered around Europe. Since then the Catalan movement has not made much visible progress, but the Catalan people have continuously kept their voices and opinions heard about what they declare to be unjust imprisonments contrary to international law and un-democratic actions taken by the Spanish state. Spain, however, says it is defending the country’s constitution.
But how does this correlate with Scotland? Apart from their long histories of troubled relations with the countries of which they have for centuries formed part, there are not many apparent links between the pro-independence movements in both Catalonia and Scotland. But that may not be true. Although they are very different, their independence movements do have one common feature - both communities have a tie to each other through the EU. Many voices demanding Scottish independence have been emboldened by the results of the Brexit referendum for the very reason that remaining with the EU was exponentially stronger among Scottish voters. But this raises a predicament for the EU with regards to the Catalan people.
Shifting our focus to the EU, several critics claim that the Union’s sanctions on Russia over the jailing of Putin’s main political opponent Alexei Navalny are hypocritical due to its response to Catalan political prisoners within its own borders. The EU’s stance has always been that Catalan independence disputes are a matter confined to the Spanish border and not up to the EU. But their demands for the release of Alexei Navalny seem to show a clash of pro-democratic arguments with the EU’s own internal federal stance.
But what does Scotland have to do with Catalonia’s independence and the EU’s stance towards the latter? The answer is long and complicated. First, both Scotland and Catalonia have rich histories as independent states before their forced appropriation by the countries they currently belong to. Their cultures and identities have deep roots into their past that remain strong even after repeated attempts at stifling them.
Second, as May the 6th approaches and the Scotland independence movement seems to grow ever stronger, Britain’s Prime Minister Johnson has clarified that the UK government will not authorise a second independence referendum. If he remains true to his word, it is inevitable that Scotland and the UK Government will become embroiled in a political and legal struggle. This approach by Johnson and his government could be viewed as reflecting the intransigent approach of Mariano Rajoy, President of Spain and leader of the Partido Popular during Catalonia’s independence referendum in 2017.
Finally, if Scottish politicians do attempt to put the question of independence to the people again, no matter the outcome, the tremors will be felt in Spain and more importantly Catalonia. What the repercussions of these shocks will be are still to be determined. But one thing is for sure, the Catalan people who want independence, and all Spaniards who oppose them, are watching Scotland’s next move very carefully indeed.
Eyes will turn to the EU as the need for it to define its position on the issues is fast approaching.
Another period of political turbulence is upon the UK and Spain, but this time it may be out of those countries’ hands how it will play out.