EDINBURGH/MADRID (Reuters) - The Catalan and Scottish independence movements, the two strongest in Europe, are entering a new phase, with lessons to be learnt from each other’s experiences so far.
Separatists won a clear majority of seats in Catalonia’s parliament in a regional election on Sunday, deepening its confrontation with the Madrid government.
Despite the passions and raised hopes, both the Scots and the Catalans face a tricky road ahead, with stubborn central governments as well as business, banks and European Union officials arrayed against them.
And neither side enjoys overwhelming support from their own population. But they will at the very least remain a thorn in the side of politics in Britain and Spain for some years.
“Anyone watching events in Catalonia right now will be experiencing a strong sense of constitutional deja vu,” Scottish commentator David Torrance wrote in Sunday’s Glasgow Herald.
“A coalition of independence supporters promising secession on an 18-month timescale, scaremongering about the EU and pensions, talk of federalism as a possible compromise. It’s tempting to say been there, done that.”
Catalan regional president Artur Mas, addressing jubilant supporters in Barcelona after Sunday’s vote, said a democratic mandate now existed to move forward with independence.
But Spain’s constitution does not allow a region to break away and Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy strongly opposes any attempt to hold a referendum on secession.
The Scots’ independence drive, led by the Scottish National Party, (SNP) lost a referendum in September a year ago.
But the SNP then won a sweeping victory in a British election in May, taking all but three of Scotland’s 59 seats in parliament, and says a second referendum must be held at some point in the future.
Many Catalans saw Scotland’s referendum as exemplary because Prime Minister David Cameron respected the Scots’ right to have their say. Rajoy’s strategy has largely been dismissive of Catalan nationalist arguments, describing them as “nonsense”.
Michael Keating, professor of European politics at the University of Aberdeen, said the Catalan experience would have only a small impact on Scotland, but Scotland’s would weigh on the Catalans.
“The ‘yes’ side in Catalonia will now say that we’ve got a mandate to go down the Scottish road, because like the Scottish nationalists we’ve got a majority,” he told Reuters.
Before the Catalan vote, the independence camp said a good result would allow it to unilaterally declare independence within 18 months.
However, the more practical way forward is a period of negotiations with the government that emerges from upcoming national elections in Spain, possibly resulting in a more favorable tax regime and a federal-style relationship.
As far as Scotland goes, the timing of another referendum is crucial as the SNP needs to make sure it wins this time, otherwise the issue will be dead and buried for a generation.
Its position should be spelled out in its manifesto for Scottish local elections in May.
Cameron says Scotland has had its referendum and Westminster is unlikely to permit another. SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon says it is for Scotland to decide on whether to have another vote and says certain triggers could bring one on.
Chief among these is if Westminster fails to deliver on promises of greater devolution for Scotland. Also important is the result of a promised vote on whether Britain should stay in the European Union, with Scotland wanting to stay in.
EU officials have been cool to both independence movements.
In the run-up to the Catalan election, the separatists experienced the same kind of offensive that the Scots weathered before their referendum. Banks threatened to pull out of the region. They were told independence would mean Catalonia would be out of the euro zone and out of the European Union.
Both movements have kept a close eye on each other but have been wary of trumpeting a common cause, largely out of concern not to antagonize the respective central governments.
Before the Catalan vote, however, the SNP urged Spain to allow a referendum, with MEP Alyn Smith saying attempts to block one would be “anti-democratic, anti-European and potentially explosive”.
That was possibly payback for Madrid’s forceful interventions against Scottish independence last year.
The Scottish government’s response to the Catalan election was careful. While congratulating the winners, it also said Scotland’s referendum was part of a process agreed by both the Scottish and British governments.
“The constitutional arrangements in Scotland and the UK are clearly different to those of Spain and Catalonia but should we be invited we stand ready to share our experiences with Spain and Catalonia,” External Affairs Secretary Fiona Hyslop said.
There are also many differences in their situations. Not least in their economies. Catalonia is the engine of Spain, accounting for almost 19 percent of Spain’s total GDP.
Whether an independent Scotland would be economically viable, with or without North Sea oil, was the subject of much debate during the referendum.
“The fact that we are such a big economy in Spain will help us,” said Erola Pairo, 33, president of the Catalan Center of Scotland in Edinburgh and a supporter of independence.
Scotland, on the other hand, is already widely seen as a separate political entity.
“Nobody doubts that Scotland is a nation, it is more accepted that it is separate,” Pairo said.
Narcisco Michavila, a pollster and adviser to Spain’s ruling People’s Party (PP), said that the half of the Catalan population that wanted to separate was generally richer and better educated than those who wished to stay within Spain.
“In Scotland, it is precisely the other way around, in Scotland the unemployed voted for independence a year ago with the criteria ‘I’m having such a bad time that if I switch flags my life will improve.’”
Keating said that had Scotland voted to leave the United Kingdom last year, it would have been accepted by Westminster. But Spain would fight hard to keep hold of Catalonia.
“There’s a feeling that Catalonia is what makes Spain, without Catalonia there is no Spain. Losing Catalonia would really be quite fatal, while Scotland is seen in England as ultimately dispensable,” Keating said.
Reporting by Angus Berwick in Edinburgh, Elisabeth O'Leary in Madrid and Julien Toyer in Barcelona, Writing by Angus MacSwan; Editing by Peter Millership