Demonstrators holding giant flags of Scotland, Basque Country and Catalonia during a demonstration called by Gure Esku Dago (It’s in our hands) in support of a Catalan vote on independence from Spain, in the northern Spanish Basque city of Bilbao. Spain’s national government has branded the November vote illegal and vowed to block it, but Catalonia’s regional president Artur Mas has vowed to push on with the plan.
Almost 2mn people poured into the streets of Barcelona last week, demanding independence for the Catalan region of Spain.
From the air, the masses looked like a swarm of yellow and red, the colours of Catalonia, as they formed a massive V along the most important corridors of the large northern Mediterranean port city. Among the Catalan flags unfurling in the afternoon breeze were banners of another kind: the Saltire, Scotland’s ensign.
Scotland’s referendum tomorrow, when residents will vote on whether to leave the United Kingdom after more than 300 years of union, has revitalised the question of regional independence for similar movements across Europe.
In Catalonia, where demands for sovereignty have become increasingly urgent over the past five years, affinity with the Scottish independence movement has become palpable during recent demonstrations.
But experts are cautious about predicting a wider fracturing across Europe. Independence movements hoping to make Scotland an inspiration face different political realities on their home turf.
“Scotland has become a point of reference for Catalan nationalists, but the constitutional position is different,” said Michael Keating, professor of politics at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. “The position in Madrid is that the Spanish constitution says the state is indissoluble.”
Catalan politicians announced a referendum in the region for November 9. There are two questions slated to be posed: Do you want Catalonia to be a state? And if yes, do you want that state to be independent?
Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has called such a vote illegal, saying the matter would be referred to the country’s Constitutional Court. Yesterday, Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo said the government would “use all means within its capacity to prevent the referendum”.
A federal victory before the court is almost certain, but the debate might ultimately come down to the force of popular support for independence, which could build as the Catalan region watches the vote in Scotland.
“We will vote. There is no doubt,” Artur Mas, the leader of Catalonia’s main political party, declared after last Thursday’s march. “The government can say no, but they cannot stop it. We will resolve this by voting.”
A looming question is whether the political bluster could lead to real confrontation. “I see no sign of either side changing; the two sides are very intransigent,” Keating said. “It’s just a train crash waiting to happen.”
Catalonia might find itself propelled not just by the force exerted by its own independence movement but also by the Scottish vote, which already has political significance among Catalans regardless of whether the Scots choose independence.
“Britain is seen as an example of how such an issue can be handled - and according to a majority of Catalans should be handled - under a democracy,” said Klaus-Juergen Nagel, a professor of politics at Barcelona’s Pompeu Fabra University.
“The constitutional barrier was taken away, in a negotiated way, opening the path for the Scottish people to decide,” he said.
Nevertheless, a slew of other independence movements have foundered recently. Another Spanish secessionist movement, in the Basque region, quieted after a bid was rejected by the Constitutional Court, and many characterised as political gamesmanship a March online poll that found 89% of people in Italy’s Veneto region, which includes Venice, in favour of independence.
In Belgium, where the Flanders region has long been a hotbed of secessionist feeling, the inability of political parties to form a national government has essentially led to governance by the regions.
Belgium was left with a caretaker administration for 18 months after the 2010 elections and has yet to inaugurate a new government after May’s elections.
“They didn’t have a government, and nobody noticed,” Keating said.
As a result, the Flemish have developed a newfound conviction that their interests can be represented at both the regional and the EU level, causing momentum for a sovereign state to wane, Keating said.
In many cases, it seems independence movements desire not so much to be separate but to reflect local interests more directly.
“The Catalan and the Scottish nationalists put an emphasis on Europe,” Keating said. “It’s precisely their pro-Europeanism that says we can break away from the state and become a state in our own right.”
Whether Europe would accept the outcome of a referendum carried out without a federal government’s sanction is somewhat murkier.
Many Catalans, in any case, said it’s just a matter of time. “UK is a real democracy,” read one sign held at last week’s protest. “So much to learn.”
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