Europe / Independence Movements

Scotland and Catalonia: Europe’s Ballot Box Revolutions

There are 193 member states of the United Nations, and probably a few more countries in the world depending on who you ask. Although this is no meager sum, the global political landscape has changed significantly, considering a few centuries ago there were as many as 1,000 countries in modern day Germany. However, the trajectory of history may be about to reverse: the world may gain two new independent states.

The most recent new state, South Sudan, became independent after a period of fierce warfare in an intensely impoverished environment. These two potential new states, however, are both in Europe: Scotland, currently part of the United Kingdom, and Catalonia, currently part of Spain. Both of these potential states have scheduled referenda to answer the question of independence, but they have little else in common.

The government of Spain has stated that the Catalonian referendum is illegal, with Prime Minister Rajoy saying “any discussion or debate on this is out of the question.” Even though the referendum is non-binding, the showdown between Catalan and Spanish politicians continues. As the date set for the referendum, November 9th, 2014, approaches, both sides refuse to back down.

According to some polls, over 50 percent of Catalans support independence. As recently as a decade ago, however, an independent Catalan republic seemed only a little more likely than an independent Vermont. Even though the Catalan people speak a different language than the Castilian that dominates most of the country, and the region has its own unique culture and history, talk of independence has not become serious until quite recently. Protests erupted in 2010 when the Spanish Constitutional Court made significant changes to the Statute of Autonomy in Catalonia, removing all mention of Catalonia as a nation and eliminating key protections for Catalan self-government, including control over finances and the judiciary, as well as protections for the Catalan language. As many as 1.5 million people marched in Barcelona in protest of the decision, an event Barcelona’s Mayor called “unprecedented.” Pro-independence parties gained a majority in the Catalonian parliament in elections the following month. With the pro-unity People’s Party in control of the Spanish Parliament, the stage has been set for a confrontation.

Separatist Catalan politicians have many reasons to argue for Independence. They say Catalonia, wealthier in general than the rest of Spain, has been unfairly forced to support the rest of the country through the recent economic crisis. They cite nations such as Denmark and the Netherlands as examples, believing that they have the potential to join the ranks of other small, wealthy, and efficient European nations, far surpassing the relatively stagnant Spain. Furthermore, many Catalans believe that Catalonia’s independent culture deserves an independent nation-state. Threatened by Franco’s Fascist regime, which banned their language, they have seen a resurgence in nationalism and pride that keeps their identity strong and independent.

In 2013, the Catalan parliament declared Catalonia “sovereign” and organized a referendum to assess opinion on independence. With the declaration suspended by a Spanish court and the referendum declared illegal, a political crisis may be looming in the southern European nation. The rhetoric continues to escalate, with a Catalan organizer even saying that the Spanish “wouldn’t have enough tanks” to control Barcelona. Going into November, Catalonia’s future is uncertain.

Scotland faces a radically different situation as they approach their own independence referendum, scheduled for September 18th, 2014. This peaceful, democratic vote is a far cry from the Battle of Bannockburn and the Scottish independence wars 700 years ago. Rather than on the fields of Galloway and Northumbria, the war for Scottish independence now takes place in the hearts and minds of Scottish citizens. Unlike in Catalonia, the Parliament of the United Kingdom has agreed to respect the results of the referendum.

The events leading to this state of affairs have been considerably less tumultuous than those in Catalonia. Scotland’s devolved Parliament was established in 1998 when a successful referendum in Scotland led to the passage of the Scotland Act by the Labour government in London. The Scottish National Party (SNP) achieved success in the 2007 election by running on a platform supporting a new independence referendum, but was not able to garner enough support until their second government in 2011. After a long period of negotiations and questions regarding legality (constitutional law in the United Kingdom is notoriously nebulous), the Edinburgh agreement between British Prime Minister David Cameron and Scottish Prime Minister Alex Salmond was signed, and the referendum scheduled for 2014.

The motivating factors for Scottish independence are less nationalistic than those in Catalonia. Unlike Catalonia, Scotland shares a language with the larger country (notwithstanding small minorities of Scottish Gaelic and Scots speakers), and the fact that the UK parliament has agreed to Scottish autonomy means that Scottish people generally don’t feel that English culture is a threat to their own. Some Scots simply believe the small country could do better as an independent state, able to dictate their own policies on education, finance, and energy. Many believe that the UK Parliament has treated them as an afterthought, citing extremely low life expectancy and high rates of poverty in Glasgow, Scotland’s largest city, relative to the rest of the UK. In addition, economic growth in the UK has been centered around London, and some Scottish politicians argue that complete control over Scotland’s considerable oil resources will help focus that growth within the small northern country, rather than without.

Numerous questions continue to arise around Scottish independence, such as whether the country will be able to use the Pound, switch to the Euro, or create their own currency. Overall, support for Scottish independence is not currently high enough to lead to an affirmative vote, but the independence movement (known as the “Yes” campaign) has seen polls move in their favor over recent months, and the undecided currently make up more than 25 percent of possible voters. The fate of the vote is still uncertain, and debate grows more intense as the September 9 vote approaches.

An independent Scotland and Catalonia would both enter the world alone, needing to reapply to the European Union. Their places within other organizations, such as the council of Europe or NATO, is also uncertain. How the two countries might fare is a subject of constant debate throughout the European Union and the World, and whether they will emerge as independent nations in the near future is unclear.  Even more uncertain is whether other nations will follow suit. Support seems to be growing for nationalist groups in the Basque country, the Canary Islands, and Veneto. Whether this system becomes a new norm will determine whether the new “shot heard ‘round the world” is instead a vote cast at the ballot box.