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Ignacio Molina

Secessionism in advanced democracies: Catalonia in between Scotland and Padania

Principal European Researcher at the Elcano Royal Institute

Three years ago, the so-called sovereignty process was unleashed and external attention on the Catalonian political situation has been increasing. On the official level it is true that internationalization continues to have -as expected- a quite limited implementation beyond the frustrated appeals of the current Catalonian government. European involvement in the issue and the consequent reaction of Spanish diplomacy to what Brussels and the other national capitals pronounce themselves as discouraging the idea of secession. However, when looking at the media coverage of the "Procés", and the analyses that connect it to other territories where there are also significant secessionist movements, there is a growing interest that, for example, was reflected in the relatively high coverage of the election result given by the major international media (or the regional press in the places most interested in it).


"The eagerness of" Procés" is well understood and its similarities with Scotland is emphasized and thus it becomes more attractive. And, in fact, there are several background elements that present similarities".

On the other hand, and more significant than the projection of the independence movement from the inside looking out, we should also take into account a different international dimension that goes in the opposite direction; this is the effect that the external and comparative developments on secession have occurred in the Catalonian internal debate. This is to say, it is not only that sovereignty has been able to attract some external attention but also, and above all, that it has been able to transmit that the international environment is favourable to the adventure to its followers. To achieve both goals, it has benefited from exceptional help: Scotland. Having its reference has been one of the most providential circumstances for the "Proces" and it is quite possible that, without this accessory, counting on rupture would not have been so advanced.


To understand the significance of the Scottish events, we should bear in mind that secessionist movements, despite not being an atypical phenomenon in the contemporary scenario, often deserve a judgment in world public opinion that is at least dubious, and opposition almost unanimous as regards state governments. In fact, since the Cold War was finally over more than 20 years ago -the disintegration of the three existing federations in the post-socialist space had long been predicted- only four new states have come into existence: three of them in post-colonial war contexts (Eritrea, East Timor and South Sudan) and another one (Montenegro) as the penultimate Western Balkans death throe in the 1990s.

None of these cases was an admirable political project in an advanced country, more it seemed a handful of de-facto separations that, being unilateral, have failed to reach full statehood (Somalila, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Nagorno-Karabakh and Transnistria). Even Kosovo, despite being able to appeal a remedial secession and gain broad Western recognition, is still outside the international community. Not even those few anti-occupation movements that have legal status or prestige (Palestine, Western Sahara, Tibet and Kurdistan) could be presented as a model for an EU territory. 

If the objective of independence wanted to be convincing internally and externally, it seemed necessary to have a plausible example in an environment comparable to the Catalonian one.

But the outlook in Western Europe was not encouraging either. Since 1945, the only new States came into existence in convulsive -often quite violent- contexts, marked either by the collapse of authoritarian regimes and the subsequent transition (Yugoslavia, USSR and Czechoslovakia), or by British decolonization (Cyprus and Malta). The truth is that there is no single precedent of peaceful secession in the developed world of consolidated democracies. Moreover, on the other hand, the active separatisms that were left at hand were not attractive due to their connection with terrorist conflicts (Northern Ireland and the Basque Country), their small size (Corsica, South Tyrol and Sardinia) or their unfriendly and unsupportive character (Flanders and Padania). Moreover, the foreign policy of the Union incorporated as its own doctrine -and still does- the defence of territorial integrity and coexistence among diverse communities, and so their instinct is to react in these cases (Bosnia-Herzegovina or Ukraine to cite two examples within the continent or Cyprus, within the very same EU) where they are put in question. In short, just five years ago being an independentist meant clearly positioning yourself on the wrong or even denigrated side of European politics.


But then the SNP won the Scottish elections in May 2011 (44% of the votes and the absolute majority of seats) with a break-up programme and, what was even more spectacular, in just over a year it managed to start from London -which did not want to negotiate more autonomy- the maximalist celebration of an independence referendum. The gift of David Cameron and Alex Salmond could not be more appropriate. In October 2012, just a few weeks after the great demonstration in Barcelona that marked the radicalization of moderate Catalonian nationalism, the Edinburgh agreement was signed. A world-famous territory that was part of a great democratic power was going to submit to a legal vote if it was to become a new European State. Not even the distant Quebec, whose sovereignty movement also in the doldrums, had advanced to this point because it had never managed to agree on a procedure to carry out the secession with Ottawa.

We understand well the desire of "Procés" to put the emphasis on their similarities with Scotland and thus make themselves more attractive.

And, in fact, there are several background elements with similarities. First, an effective democratic narrative that transversally pits the people against the distant and centralist elites (on top of which the fact that the ruling central government is Conservative or the PP, two minority parties in the two territories in question) greatly contributes. Secondly, and with inestimable help from the austerity imposed during the crisis, the idea that the independence movement can also embrace messages from the Left and thus gain adepts and reputation in urban and intellectual environments usually disinclined to the identity messages of traditional nationalism. Finally, having challenged that it is worthwhile to continue belonging to plural and decentralised democracies that are well connected to the European and the global, using the argument that it is precisely the EU and globalisation that makes it unnecessary for small nations to continue to be part of larger states such as the United Kingdom or Spain.

Nonetheless, and however much the Catalonian independence movement has wanted to ignore them, there are also significant differences that mark undeniable limits for the phase that inaugurated after the 27th September. 

Undoubtedly, and apart from the fact that secessionism has not attained 50% of the votes, the most obvious difference is that Catalonia has embarked on a unilateral gamble (which was expressly rejected by Scottish nationalism). This is the success of the sovereignty process. This is that its supposedly attractive elements mobilize external agents to force an inflexible Madrid to accept secession. It is a truly implausible development from a minimally realistic perspective of foreign policy and European integration. However, even if we accept an idealistic approach in international relations as a momentary hypothesis, the Catalonian dossier presents a number of problems that, in the eyes of external observers, distance it from the Scottish model and bring it closer to the aforementioned less-attractive European secessionisms Consequently, it is worth mentioning:

The difficult determination of the rational that the "right to decide" is founded on, when faced with two national realities that overlap here (the Spanish and Catalonian) instead of simply overlaying (the British on top of the Scottish). and even when the rupture will always be less in the second case, Alex Salmond also had the ability to alleviate its possible impact by promising to maintain some significant elements of the union such as the pound sterling, the Queen or cooperation in defence. In the Catalonian discourse, there has hardly been a similar mention in relation to the Football League.

The potential internal fracture of Catalonia in groups, confronted according to their mother tongue and national identity; a danger practically impossible in Scotland, for the reasons explained in the previous point, but rather in other territories with secessionist movements in which there is conflict between linguistic, religious or ethnic communities. While there are cases where a independence referendum could be resolved mainly by debate (Scotland), there are others where identities block deliberation (Northern Ireland) where the agonistic alternatives are highly undesirable. Catalonia is halfway there, although the "Proces" has distanced it from the first model, as reflected in the recent election results between Spanish-speaking and Catalonian-speaking people.

The limit to the argument of defending the weakest when, in clear contrast with Scotland, it is the middle and upper socio-economic Catalonian classes that support the independence movement more clearly. A type of support more typical of the Venetian or Flemish examples.

The relationship with the parent State itself, which the Scottish and Catalonian independentisms present as insensitive to plurinationality and reluctant to decentralise (even though there are not many democracies in Europe that could better the United Kingdom and Spain in these aspects), but which Scotland is not accompanied by the unfriendly additional dimension of excessive fiscal contribution, or an alleged superiority of the small nation over the collective majority at State level.

It is obvious that none of these four elements (and unilateralism, above all) will help the Catalonian independence movement to attract foreign supporters who dare to make an extraordinary intervention in Spanish politics. 

Of course, the fact that it is impossible to internationalize the process along sovereignty lines, this does not mean that the latter, capable of presenting itself with a quite attractive message for almost half of Catalonians, is necessarily doomed to defeat. Obviously, when Catalonian secessionism is projected on the rest of Spain and the world has to take into account that its interlocutors will scrutinize the elements that make it more presentable and bring it closer to Scotland, but also those that are less so, and relate it to Padania.

Article originally published in Web Elcano



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