Scottish Referendum Sparks Catalonia: A Challenge for the EU?

EU Challenge - Children Catalonia

by Simon Tasso

The Scottish referendum set alarm bells ringing in national governments across the European Union facing similar separatist movements within their own territories. Remarkably, 45 percent of Scots voted “Yes” to Independence, despite the broad uncertainty of its economic sustainability as an independent nation. An astonishing 84.5 percent of eligible voters flocked the polling stations breaking all records in voter turnout in both the U.K. and Scotland. The large number of votes expressing the wish to secede is remarkable, considering the 650,000 voters born outside of Scotland, who overwhelmingly opted for “No.” All Scottish inhabitants aged 16 and above from the U.K., Commonwealth or EU countries were admitted to vote, including students recently having moved there from other parts of the U.K.

The referendum came at a bad time for the EU, currently suffering from a vulnerable public image. Right-wing parties continue to gain influence and economic crises are posing serious challenges to national and supranational institutions.

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy described this referendum as “a torpedo below the waterline for European integration.” Radical critics fear that the prominence of the Scottish case could lead to another great European devolution similar to the period between 1918 and 1992, which saw many new small states appearing on the map of Europe in fewer than 100 years time. The first wave came after WWI with the collapse of European empires, when the principle of self-determination became prevalent. Former U.S. President Woodrow Wilson vigorously advocated this right during the Paris Peace Conferences in 1918. “National aspirations must be respected; people may now be dominated and governed only by their own consent. ‘Self-determination’ is not a mere phrase; it is an imperative principle of action,” he said.

A second major wave of disintegration occurred in the 1990s, when the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia collapsed and many of their constituent regions became independent nation-states.

The EU framework tries to avoid any resurgence of separatist movements as, on one side, it attempts to protect, but also trivialize sovereign statehood. This is the aftermath of Europe being torn apart by two world wars over issues related to nation states. Borders are not to be challenged anymore, however imperfect they may be.

Thankfully, the EU institutions have succeeded in preventing quarrels between member states related to nationalities and borders. However, the enlightenment period and the French Revolution already planted the seeds for the right of self-determination more than 200 years ago, which is now deeply rooted all over the world.

The masses voting for Scottish independence demonstrated that the globalization has not rendered the nation-state obsolete. The British government responded with a series of promises for political concessions to the northern territory. Regardless of the outcome, the campaign remarkably reinforced the people’s involvement in democratic processes on both sides. In the words of Scottish author Irvine Welsh, “the Scots have just reinvented and re-established the idea of true democracy. This – one more – glorious failure might also, paradoxically, be their finest hour.”

When on September 11, the National Day of Catalonia, nearly 2 million people gathered in Barcelona for the biggest independence rally yet, many brought the Scottish flag to show support for the upcoming referendum. The protesters formed a large “V” representing their will to vote.

Several similarities can be drawn between the Scottish and Catalan independence movements. Both have increasingly gathered momentum and are wholly non-violent in nature. Both focus on economic and historical distinctions, while claiming that their central governments in London and Madrid rob their regions of prosperity. Particularly, however, the cultural element is more pronounced in Catalonia.

The follow-through of the Scottish vote was an inspiration to Catalonian nationalists. They saw this as a confirmation that changing borders within the EU is still possible, and that an EU member state could grant its citizens a right to vote on self-determination. The Scottish referendum demonstrated that this could be achieved through peaceful, democratic means, leading to an open debate on the advantages and disadvantages of being independent.

However, the negative outcome of the Scottish referendum came as a disappointing blow to the Catalans. A poll conducted by the major Catalonian newspaper El Periódico revealed a strong belief that this would negatively impact the Catalan independence movement, known as the ‘Catalan Way.’ So far, the Catalan governments efforts to persuade Madrid to grant them a vote have not been fruitful. The national leadership staunchly refused to give in and dodged the conflict by referring to legal issues, such as constitutional boundaries. Thus, it suffocated the chance of open negotiation and progress, leaving the country ignorant of the pressing issues at hand.

The Catalan government unilaterally set a date for a referendum on November 9, 2014. After intense pressure from the Spanish government and fears of incriminating himself, Catalan President Artur Mas called off the vote. However, a simulation referendum took place with over 80 percent in favor of independence, although only 40 percent of eligible voters voted, as many refused the poll.

Independence movements seem to be a thorn in the side of the EU. Officials confirmed several times that in case of independence, a long process of integration to the EU would ensue. “Any belief that Europe would accept an independent Catalonia is deeply wrong,” European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker announced bluntly. Catalonia, on the other hand, remains optimistic of EU support and acceptance to the Union. President Mas sent a letter to European leaders stating, “I am confident I can rely on you to encourage the peaceful, democratic, transparent, and European process to which I and a vast majority of the Catalan people are fully committed.”

Some members of the European Parliament (EP) have responded with more affinity. Green’s parliamentarian, Ska Keller, expressed support for the Catalans and their efforts towards self-determination. Socialists in the EP have been more open to discussing independence than their conservative counterparts, with internal differences.

However, Parliament’s President Martin Schulz declared it “an issue between Spain and Catalonia.” According to Schulz, the EU should not take any position in these debates, being well aware of the Spanish position. In March 2014, Spain’s Foreign Minister García Margallo, stated that if Catalonia became independent, it would be cast into outer space, where it would wander outside the EU “for ever and ever.”

By ignoring the extreme frustration of Catalan independence movement, the EU only intensified the desire for self-determination to date. The will for autonomy is not expected to subside any time soon, as it has become deeply intertwined in the daily lives of the people. Thus, by avoiding outcries from a significant part of its population, Europe is threatened to lose its democratic credibility and worsen its current crisis.

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