Not even a month ago, the referendum to decide Crimea’s political status dominated headlines and news tickers worldwide. Viewed as the just latest example of the Russian Federation’s disturbing move toward Soviet-style imperialism, the referendum — which presented annexation by Russia as simply the lesser of two evils — essentially denied the Crimean people their right to self-determination. But while Russia’s creeping hegemony threatens Eastern Europe, two upcoming referenda in the West exhibit a contrary trend .
On September 18, Scottish citizens age 16 and older will answer the question, “Should Scotland become an independent country?” Less than two months later, voters in the Catalonia region of northern Spain will face a similar decision. Both votes could represent the culmination of lengthy independence movements in the two regions. And if the referenda succeed, the resulting division of Spain and the United Kingdom could have significant implications for the face of the entire EU and Eurozone.
Catalonia’s bid for independence came as no surprise to anyone acquainted with its history and distinctive culture. Catalonians speak a language completely unrelated to Spanish and possess unique religious traditions. After suffering harsh repression during the dictatorship of Francisco Franco from 1939 to 1975, the Catalan people found themselves thrust into a tumultuous period of democratic reform. The resultant Constitution of 1978 — which is still in place today — granted Catalonia the dubious status of an “independent community” within the Spanish state. Later statues clarified Catalonia’s unique status: the Spanish central government largely leaves Catalans to manage their internal affairs, although it does maintain jurisdiction over commerce and defense.
Discontent with their political status has led to increasingly vocal protests among the Catalan people over the past three and a half decades. Separatist politicians now hold 88 of 135 seats on Catalonia’s regional Parliament. Many celebrate a Catalonian Independence Day on September 11; last year they commemorated the day by forming a 250-mile human chain across the region.
It would be an understatement to say that the referendum has been long coming, yet the central Spanish government has recoiled at the idea of allowing a vote. Almost immediately after the President of Catalonia, Artur Mas, announced the referendum last December, the Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy vowed not to allow it. A March 25 ruling by the Constitutional Court — the Spanish analog of the U.S. Supreme Court — added still more obstacles to the vote by declaring the referendum unconstitutional. The Spanish Parliament is scheduled to debate the issue beginning April 8, and it is unlikely to be any more sympathetic.
Edgar Illas, Professor of Catalan at Indiana University, explained the Spanish government’s reaction by contrasting two historical strains of Catalan nationalism. Previous iterations of the nationalist movement had pushed more for a federalist solution, in which Catalonia would exist as a state within the federalist structure of greater Spain, but it would maintain independence in internal affairs. Illas compared this proposition to the federalist system of the U.S. or Australia, in contrast to the current Spanish organizational structure, which is similar to the French system. Catalonia would control its own language, culture, and taxes, but it would still maintain economic and military ties to the rest of Spain.
Complete separatism from Spain is a strain of Catalan nationalism that has gained prominence in the last four years. The possibility of complete independence, Illas said, “was always a subtext, but never explicit.” In a talk at Harvard this past March, Professor Laia Balcell of Duke University attributed this shift to a ruling by the Constitutional Court that proposed reevaluating the statute giving Catalonia its current limited autonomy.
Meanwhile, Illas credited the eventual declaration of a referendum with this shift toward separatism. Paradoxically, with the greater emphasis on separatism, the Catalonian nationalist movement has become less distinctly Catalan. “Catalan nationalism always spoke Catalan,” Ilias said. “Catalan separatism speaks Catalan, Spanish, and other languages.” Instead, the new separatist movement has played into a more general rhetoric of regional independence on the basis of culture.
Catalan President Mas has claimed to be open to compromise at every stage of the process. After hearing about Prime Minister Rajoy’s hostile reaction to the referendum, Mas made it clear that the proposed vote would be a “popular consultation” in order to inform future policy rather than a traditional referendum requiring the government’s cooperation with the result. The Catalan government recently revised the ballot to include two questions rather than one. First, voters will answer, “Do you want Catalonia to be a state?” And then, “Do you want that state to be independent?” While portrayed as a gesture of conciliation toward Madrid, this alteration may actually be a political move designed to increase the referendum’s chances of passing. “You can have those people who still believe in the federalist project,” said Illas — “those who would vote ‘yes’ to the first question in a heartbeat — who might be more reticent, nevertheless, to declare complete independence from greater Spain”.
Still, Spanish politicians are loath to loosen their grip on Catalonia, a region that is economically vital to the Spanish economy. Catalonia produces 20 percent of Spain’s national economic output. It also contains popular tourist destinations as Barcelona and Costa Brava. Barcelona is also home to the second largest stock marcket in Spain. The loss of these lucrative hubs of trade and tourism would be a blow the faltering Spanish economy may not be able to cope with.
Historically, there has been a sort of “unwritten pact in Spain,” according to Illas, in which economic power was centered in Barcelona and political power was concentrated in Madrid. However, the symbiosis between these two cities has weakened. Madrid has now become the financial center of Spain, and Barcelona does not need Madrid to protect its interests. The Catalan capital also would like more direct access to global markets.
With over $71 billion in debt, Catalonia has not functioned as an independent economy in centuries. On the other hand, the region has a high GDP per capita and fully developed infrastructure. In addition, it would be in a highly advantageous position for land trade between France and Spain, as well as sea trade with Britain and nations around the Mediterranean. “Catalonia is viable. No one doubts it,” Balcell asserted. “The only concerns are possible boycotts from Spain after independence.”
The roots of the Scottish national movement, like those in Catalonia, are decades old. Professor Stuart Semmel of Yale University’s Department of Political Science traced the origin of the current nationalist trend to the formation of the National Party of Scotland — now the Scottish National Party — in 1928. As in Catalonia, nationalism in Scotland has gone through different iterations. “We should distinguish, first, between ‘cultural nationalism’ and ‘political nationalism,’” said Semmel, “In the twentieth century, there were many cultural nationalists — who recited Robert Burns poems, participated in Highland Games, and enrolled their children in Gaelic classes — but who were firmly opposed to creating a Scottish Parliament, let alone creating an independent Scotland.”
Even political nationalists have been divided between support of so-called “devolution,” or partial transfer of power to a Scottish regional government, and full-blown independence. The 1997 referendum for the creation of a Scottish Parliament was a response to this divided interest. Then-Prime Minister Tony Blair hoped it would diminish Scottish nationalism generally.
Since then, the political divide between Scotland and London has become all the more distinct. “It’s been a frequent refrain over these decades that Scotland keeps having a Conservative government ‘imposed’ on it because it can’t outvote England in elections for the Westminster Parliament,” says Semmel. Scotland’s share of Conservative MPs has plummeted, and only one Conservative won in the elections of 2010. The Scottish National Party, due to its regional character and the dominance of the Labour and Conservative Parties on the national stage, has not actually thrived in elections for the Westminster Parliament. According to Semmel, “The reason we’re seeing this referendum now has to do with the SNP’s majority in the Scottish Parliament, not their power at Westminster.”
While Catalan nationalists faced major opposition from the Spanish government before even presenting the question of independence to the public, the Scottish received approval of their referendum relatively easily. Scotland’s First Minister, Alex Salmond, came to an agreement with British Prime Minister David Cameron regarding the wording and administration of the referendum fairly early in the process, and the separatists have faced no legal barriers. Both sides of the debate have accepted equal spending limits on advertising in preparation for the vote.
Nonetheless, despite all the civility, the Scottish independence bid is still fraught with economic and political consequences.
First, there is the question of whether Scotland will retain the pound as its currency. Then, the UK — or what remains of it — could do nothing to prevent its continued use in an independent Scotland. As a precedent, Ecuador uses the U.S. dollar without the American government’s express consent. But economists have been quick to decry the viability of a system in which both countries use the pound yet lack a central regulating body. For a cautionary tale against this kind of economic situation, the UK need not look further than the plight of its fellow EU nations after the collapse of the Greek economy in 2009 to 2010.
What’s more, the status of the new Scottish state in the European Union would be legally tenuous at best. The Union’s foundational documents do not account for such events, and while Minister Salmond has expressed his confidence that Scotland would be grandfathered in, the President of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, has expressed doubts.
Just like Catalonia presents a significant potential financial loss to Spain, so does Scotland to the greater UK, due to its substantial oil reserves in the North Sea. Estimates of the total value of oil in Scottish waters run upwards of $2 trillion. Oil industry employees have generally benefited from British citizenship, since much of the capital for the development of rigs and auxiliary industry comes from English investors. On the other hand, British policy regarding these oil sources has been highly volatile, with 16 tax changes in the past decade and 14 different ministers in charge of related policy in the last 17 years.
Rather than relying on investment from the Southern half of the island for its development, Scottish nationalists hope to harness this resource to create a business-friendly economy with enough capital to support start-up companies on Scottish soil. Salmond has cited examples of both Ireland and Iceland as stable, if small, economies that have grown rapidly in the past few years due to a policy model conducive to foreign investment.
The most effective arguments both for and against Scottish independence, however, are not economic but cultural. Those who support an independent Scotland are wary of the increasing dominance of London in British politics. As a reaction to the overwhelming prevalence of politicians from the city, as well as to Cameron’s redefinition of the Conservative Party, the Scottish Nationalist Party won significant gains in the 2011 Scottish Parliamentary elections. Indeed, this trend toward an increasingly Scottish identity continues. Last March, only a third of voters supported independence; were the vote held today, it would be a toss-up.
Still, some fear that by cutting themselves off from the more urban South, the Scots will lose many of the benefits of multiculturalism which are so readily apparent in London.
Others, such as Cameron himself, appeal to the long-standing family and social ties between Scotland and the rest of the UK, which have been politically united since 1707. Cameron delivered a widely discussed speech in February calling on residents of England, Wales, and Northern Ireland — the three other parts of the UK — to reach out to their Scottish friends and relatives to remind them of their shared Britishness. Whereas the history of Catalonia has been one of forced assimilation into a foreign Spanish society, Scotland has long shared its traditions, values, and government with its neighbors. These ties, refined and strengthened by centuries of unity in war and peace, would take a considerable amount of national redefinition to sever.
Semmel observed, “There seems to have been a burst of what we might call ‘exclusive Scottish nationalism’ and ‘primary Scottish nationalism’ in the early days of the Scottish Parliament, but this dissipated somewhat as Scottish Parliamentary politics became less a self-evident and self-sufficient triumph in itself.” In this respect, widespread Scottish identification may not be possible without full independence, a kind of chicken-and-egg problem for those who would form a Scottish state on the basis of pre-existing nationalism.
However the referenda turn out this fall, they have raised significant concerns for Spain, the UK, and Europe at large. The kinds of nationalism, specifically separatist nationalism, that have led to the referenda are unlike nationalist movements seen in the previous century. “Separatism continues to be interpreted as a nationalist movement,” Illas said of the movement in Catalonia, while in reality “the novelty of this movement and the new situation that globalization has brought on [means that] these categories are no longer applicable.” Political scientists will have to develop new ways of talking about these movements — not quite nationalist, but not traditionally separatist either.
In addition, the aftermath of the referenda will once again force the EU to consider what it means to be European. “Is the European Union a collection of separate states,” Illas asked, “or is the European Union a representative of something like a European people…that Europeans are somehow a post-nationalist people?” If the former is true, then the EU would not be compelled to admit the (potential) new states of Catalonia and Scotland. But if Scots and Catalans are somehow essentially “European,” as their current citizenship of EU states would suggest, then the EU has much more reason to admit them. So far, the verdict is unclear. “The EU is silent about Scotland and Catalonia. They just don’t want to deal with it yet.”
Depending on the referenda’s results, they will only be able to put the question off for so long.