Three lessons from the Calatan experience for Scottish separatists

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Artur Mas, the president of Catalunya, played the sovereignty card in calling early elections on November 25 and, thereupon, campaigned hard for Catalan sovereignty and against the federal Spanish government — it felt like, at times, he was running more against Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy than against any particular regional adversary.cataloniaSpain_Flag_IconUnited Kingdom Flag Iconscotland

His reward? Mas’s center-right party, Convergència i Unió (CiU, Convergence and Union), lost 12 seats.

That’s not the whole story, of course — sovereigntist parties hold an overwhelming majority with 87 seats in the 135-member Catalan parliament (the Parlament de Catalunya).  Catalan voters found a way to express their discontent with the austerity measures of Rajoy’s federal government and Mas’s regional government by shifting support to the more leftist, pro-independence Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC, Republican Left of Catalunya).

Furthermore, it’s not been an absolutely disastrous six weeks for Mas — the ERC truculently joined a governing coalition with the CiU, thereby stabilizing Mas’s government.  Just last week, the CiU and the ERC agreed upon a framework to push a vote for Catalan independence sometime in 2014, with or without the federal Spanish government’s acquiescence, setting him on a collision course with not only Mas, but much of the federal Spanish government and probably a majority of the other Spanish regions.

Meanwhile, in Scotland, the Scottish National Party, headed by first minister Alex Salmond (pictured above) has taken a vastly different course — United Kingdom prime minister David Cameron has agreed to the 2014 independence referendum in Scotland, and polls show independence trailing the status quo by about a 50% to 32% margin there.  Unlike in Catalunya, the Scottish aren’t coming out in waves of thousands in protest for independence, and despite the unpopularity of former Conservative UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s implementation of the poll tax in Scotland, the Scots can’t point to systemic — and recent — violations of civil liberties like the Catalans can, namely the suppression of Catalan language and culture under the regime of fascist Spanish strongman Francisco Franco from 1937 to 1975.

Catalan independence would likely be a greater disruption to Spain than Scottish independence would be to the United Kingdom — by the numbers at least.  With 7.5 million people, Catalunya comprises nearly 16% of the Spanish population.  Although Scotland comprises nearly a third of the United Kingdom by area, its population of 5.3 million people is just a little under 8.5% of the total UK population.

So what can the Catalan Sturm und Drang (or, tempesta i estrès, perhaps?) of the past few months, including the November regional elections, teach Scotland as it prepares for its own 2014 referendum?

Here are three lessons that pro-independence Scots should take to heart from the recent Catalan experience.

It’s hard to distinguish support for ‘autonomy’ or ‘independence’ from economic discontent.

Mas miscalculated why Catalan voters were so angry heading into the November election.  After the vote, the number of separatist / autonomist members increased by exactly one (to 87), although many of those seats switched from the CiU to the ERC.  The real story was the gain in seats for anti-austerity and protest parties — up from 27 to 46.  The underlying narrative wasn’t actually about federalism or independence as much as it was about economics — Catalan voters were angry about the recession, unemployment, tax increases and budget cuts.

In times of economic hardship, it stands to reason that Catalunya, a relatively wealthy region and a net contributor to the Spanish federal budget, would be susceptible to an argument for greater autonomy, especially with respect to more control over the region’s own purse strings.  But it remains to be seen whether Catalunya could do just as well on its own as it currently does as a top-performing Spanish region.

Though many Catalans quite obviously remain both pro-independence and anti-austerity, it seems likely that much of the explosive discontent in the region throughout 2012 had less to do with asserting Catalan nationhood than with voicing opposition to budget policy from both the federal and regional government, and Catalan voters certainly balked at giving Mas a supermajority to pursue Catalan independence.

A general election is not the same thing as a referendum on status, and a referendum can rarely be neatly contained to just one issue.

If Mas mistakenly confused economic discontent with support for independence, he also mistakenly cast the November election as a referendum exclusively on the issue of Spanish federalism and Catalan autonomy and independence.

But even referenda are often complex votes that are about more than just the narrow issue on the ballot.  Sometimes, a referendum can mutate into a wider vote, defined more by ‘other’ issues than the ballot issue itself — the May 2005 referendum on the European constitution failed in France in no small part due to dissatisfaction with the tired government of French president Jacques Chirac — the vote against the constitution (54.7%) seemed narrow enough that a more engaged leader may have pulled the constitution over the finish line.  It’s impossible to know how that referendum — and the future of EU constitutionalism — would have turned out if it wasn’t so widely seen as an opportunity for a protest vote against Chirac’s government.

Today, Salmond is riding as high as ever since becoming Scotland’s first minister in 2007.  His SNP won the most recent Scottish elections in 2011 in a landslide, taking an absolute majority in the Scottish parliament for the first time in its history.  Furthermore, given longtime Scottish disdain for the Conservative Party, Cameron’s Tory-led government in Westminster, amid a double-dip recession and intense budget cuts, is surely certain to be unpopular in 2014 at the time of the referendum.

But by 2014, Salmond will be marking seven years in office, and if the economy remains in poor shape, there’s nothing stopping Scottish voters from blaming Salmond as well as Cameron, and using the 2014 independence referendum as a means of chastising Salmond.

‘Independence’ doesn’t mean independence within the eurozone.

So long as the European Union superstructure remains in place, independence need not be quite as traumatic a rupture within EU member states as a typical independence movement elsewhere in the world, and that reality has breathed new, more realistic life into separatist movements throughout Europe — you can easily see how regional identity and supranational governance could squeeze away much of the rationale for the nation-state (ironically enough, given that Europeans gave birth to the nation-state, as a modern concept, in Westphalia in 1648).

In that regard, it makes it easier for both Catalunya and Scotland — or any other European region — to consider ‘independence,’ because either an independent Scotland or Catalunya would certainly accede as EU members.  Although European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso has cautioned that an independent country would have to negotiate entry into the EU from scratch, that seems an absurd notion, given that Scotland has long ago integrated into Scottish law the broad EU acquis communautaire, the body of EU law that member states must implement prior to accession to the EU.  If Scottish voters declare Scotland’s independence, it is unlikely that Barroso or any top EU official would hold up eventual EU accession for anything other than pro forma negotiations.

That seems especially true given that Scots are even more fond of Europe than their English compatriots.  In light of Cameron’s increasing euroskepticism — he’s giving a speech on Friday aimed at setting out his vision for the United Kingdom’s role in the EU, which may include a future UK referendum on EU membership — Scottish voters may be tempted to opt for independence if Cameron is seen as intent on pulling the United Kingdom out of the EU.  Barroso’s warnings would appear especially outlandish if Scottish voters pull out of the UK precisely because they want Scotland to remain in the EU.

But the reductionism of self-determination under a wider EU aegis works both ways — just last week, the Scottish government indicated that the Orkney and Shetland Islands, located in the North Sea, could conceivably choose to remain part of the United Kingdom or even declare independence themselves, taking with them a considerable share of the North Sea oil that pro-independence Scots have long argued would provide the financial stability for a viable Scottish nation-state.

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