a pro-independence rally in Catalonia. Photo by Jordi Payà

Is Secessionism in Vogue? Comparing the Catalan and Scottish Cases

The independence referendum in Catalonia continues to dominate global headlines, but the region is far from the only one in Europe considering secession. Is this movement a trend or a fluke? Paul Anderson of Canterbury Christ Church University takes a look at just how different independence movements can be.

Events in Catalonia over the last few weeks have captured the world’s attention. On October 1, scenes of shocking violence marred a referendum organised by the Catalan government on the region’s secession from Spain. Videos and images of police officers dragging voters out of polling stations, confiscating ballot boxes, attacking unarmed civilians, and firing rubber bullets at groups of citizens dominated news broadcasts. By 8pm, when polling stations officially closed, more than 800 people had been admitted to hospital.

The heavy-handed approach taken by the Spanish authorities relates to the illegality of the referendum. Article 2 of the Spanish Constitution enshrines the indivisibility of the Spanish nation, thus any vote which seeks to break up the Spanish state is unconstitutional. In the aftermath of the vote, which saw over 90 percent of voters cast their ballot in favour of independence (albeit on a turnout of less than 50 percent) there have been calls for a peacefully negotiated solution. With both sides claiming the moral high ground, however, such a solution looks unlikely. The Catalan Government seems to be on course to declaring a unilateral declaration of independence, to which the Spanish Government will respond by suspending Catalan autonomy. The two sides remain on a collision course.

Secessionist movements abound in Europe in the twenty first century, from the UK to Spain, Belgium to Italy. Increasing support for secessionism is, of course, not unique to Europe. Indeed, only a few days before the Catalan vote, Kurdish and non-Kurdish residents in northern Iraq overwhelming voted in favour of independence from Baghdad. This vote, akin to the Catalan referendum, was vehemently opposed by the Iraqi central government.

The independence referendum organised in Scotland in 2014 stands in stark contrast to both the Catalan and Iraqi Kurdistan cases. Not only did the British Government help facilitate the holding of a legal vote and participate in a vibrant referendum campaign, but a majority of Scots (55 percent) voted against secession. The issue, however, is far from settled.

Some Points of Comparison

The Scottish and Catalan cases are often compared in analyses of secessionist movements. Both cases are economically successful regions of democratic, European multinational states that have achieved a significant degree of autonomy in the late twentieth century. Despite such levels of autonomy, political parties in favour of territorial breakup are in government in both regions and support for independence hovers around the 40-45 percent mark.

There are, however, significant differences between the two cases. The most obvious contrast is the fact that in September 2014 voters in Scotland was able to vote in a legal referendum. In 2012, following the election of the Scottish National Party (SNP) as a majority government in the Scottish Parliament election of 2011, the British and Scottish governments signed the Edinburgh Agreement which temporarily transferred power to the Scottish Parliament to hold a referendum. What ensued was a vibrant, lively, and engaging referendum campaign; a truly remarkable process of citizen engagement (turnout at the referendum was nearly 85 percent).

In Spain, however, no such agreement has been reached, or is likely to be reached, between the Spanish and Catalan governments. The Spanish government has consistently invoked Article 2 of the Spanish Constitution as a legal bulwark to prevent even discussing a potential referendum. For this reason, former Prime Minister David Cameron, having facilitated the holding of the referendum in Scotland, is often held up as a hero among pro right-to-decide voters in Catalonia. Cameron believed the emphatic victory secured by the SNP in 2011, whereby they won over 45 per cent of the vote and a majority of seats, signalled support among the Scottish electorate for a referendum. In Catalonia, pro-independence parties won nearly 48 percent of the popular vote in the 2015 Catalan election, as well as a majority of seats, but the rule of law trumps the democratic will of the people as far as the Spanish government is concerned. In the UK, the willingness of the British government to negotiate on the referendum led to a swift resolution of any legal concerns, while in Spain, pro-union forces continue to coalesce around the legality argument to scupper any legal referendum.

Second, whereas the UK has been historically comfortable in recognising its multinational makeup, the dominant narrative in Spain has peddled a mononational vision of the State. Most Spanish political parties – with the exception of Podemos – endorse a Jacobin mononational vision of Spain with much emphasis placed on unity, Spanish nationhood and even centralism: one territory, one nation, one people. This vision, unsurprisingly, is disputed by Catalans (as well as other distinct communities such as the Basques and Galicians) who tend to endorse a multinational vision of Spain: One territory, many nations, many peoples.

In the UK, the recognition of the state as a multinational union-state composed of 4 distinct nations (England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales) has rarely been disputed. Indeed, the asymmetrical form of devolution rolled out in the UK since 1999 (whereby varying competences and powers were devolved to Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland) was a firm acknowledgement of the UK’s multinational character.  In Spain, a similar process of asymmetrical devolution prevailed in the aftermath of the death of Francisco Franco. Though this asymmetry was supported by the Catalans and Basques, it has had to compete with the symmetrical and centralising tendencies of pro-union governing forces in Madrid.

What next?

The unfolding constitutional crises in the UK and Spain continue to dominate debate in Europe. The UK’s withdrawal from the EU (another case of secession) presents a challenge not only to Europe as a whole, but the UK’s own system of political governance. The different results from the UK’s nations (Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain while England and Wales endorsed leave), has reignited discussions of the UK’s constitutional future, particularly in Scotland. Following the loss of 21 seats in the 2017 General Election, the Scottish Nationalists have put on hold their plans for a second independence referendum, but it is likely that Scots will soon vote again on the issue.

Much of the international response to the constitutional quagmire in Catalonia has called for some form of mediation between both sides. Yet, with both sides claiming the moral high-ground, a politically negotiated solution looks unlikely. In the coming days, the Catalan government looks set to unilaterally declare independence, while the reaction from Madrid will be anything but compromising: Catalonia’s autonomy will likely be suspended, which may even trigger more violence.

Events in the UK, Spain, Scotland, and Catalonia have triggered a wave of uncertainty across the European continent. The European Union has attempted to remain aloof in the developing debates in the UK and Spain vis-à-vis constitutional issues, but there is no doubt that the quip ‘the EU does not become involved in the internal affairs of a member state’ can only go so far. Europe is indeed a continent in flux. The stakes, however, have never been higher.

Paul Anderson is a PhD Candidate and sessional lecturer in Politics and International Relations at Canterbury Christ Church University. His main research focuses on constitutional politics and secessionist movements in plurinational states.

The opinions expressed in this blog contribution are entirely those of the author and do not represent the positions of the Dahrendorf Forum or its hosts Hertie School and London School of Economics or its funder Stiftung Mercator.