Why independence movements in Scotland and elsewhere are tongue-tied over Catalonia

Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon is in a quandary. Jane Barlow/PA

Catalonia’s unilateral declaration of independence already seems so long ago. It’s hard to believe it is only a week since the provocative move by Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont unleashed a chain of events including Madrid resuming direct rule of the region, Puigdemont retreating to Belgium and Spanish premier Mariano Rajoy calling snap Catalan elections for December.

Whether the ringleaders of the UDI will be allowed to stand is unclear at the time of writing: eight have been jailed by a Madrid court pending an investigation over charges of sedition, rebellion and misuse of public funds. An international arrest warrant has been issued against Puigdemont to extradite him from Brussels.

Leaders of Europe’s other independence and autonomy movements, particularly in Scotland but also in Corsica, Flanders and the Basque Country, are doubtless following every twist and turn. So how are these events likely to impact on their ambitions?

At the outset, it is worth remembering these separatist surges tend to have roots in common. They are often less about nationalism for its own sake than part of the anti-establishment insurgency following the financial crash of 2007/08. Even though Spain has been caught in a perfect storm that included the eurozone crisis, radical and populist parties on the left and right, corruption scandals and high youth unemployment, there are sufficient parallels with movements elsewhere to make events in Catalonia seem of much broader importance.

In Scotland, there’s an additional similarity. The rise of the Ciudadanos party in Catalonia was partly due to its anti-independence stance – much like the revival of the Scottish Conservatives under Ruth Davidson. On the other hand, the Basque Country may share all the Spanish context but was weary of separatism at the time of the crash after decades of division over the issue. In that part of Spain it was the anti-establishment pro-Madrid Podemos that won the most votes in the last national election.

Bullets or ballots?

The non-violent tactics of the Catalan separatists are among the most notable characteristics of the crisis. They contrast sharply, of course, with the separatist terrorism in the Basque Country before ETA gave up arms in 2014. This has probably helped the Catalan separatists to win more sympathetic coverage in the international media.

Puigdemont, a former journalist, is generally considered to have played a subtler and more reasonable game than Rajoy – particularly after the obstructive actions and violence shown by the Guardia Civil on October 1, the day of the independence referendum. Appealing over the heads of EU leaders, repeatedly making statements in English to the international media, has not been a bad strategy when trust in the political establishment is at an all-time low.

Puigdemont in Brussels. EPA

If this is followed by successful use of peaceful mass civil disobedience in the wake of Spain revoking Catalonia’s autonomy, it could inspire other independence movements. Such tactics were famously effective in the US against racial discrimination in the 1960s, albeit Catalans neither appear to have the law on their side nor the ability to shame the government to intervene on their behalf. Whether this ultimately means such disobedience would fail, however, is far from certain.

Europe snub

The EU presents opportunities and challenges for its minority nations. Like the Catalans, Scotland’s SNP is deeply wedded as a party to the EU – even if some of its supporters are not. But with the EU broadly seen to be siding with Spain against the Catalans, it could be increasingly difficult for the party to maintain its current policy.

If the price of independence is for Catalans to be ejected from the EU, for example, where does this leave the SNP strategy of pursuing independence inside the EU? And where does it leave the Flemish nationalists’ aim of increasing the powers of Flanders within Belgium until it is independent?

These fault lines have already been visible since the Catalan UDI. Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon and her government have been careful to call for dialogue rather than for the declaration of independence to be recognised. Perhaps fearful of Spain blocking a potential bid for EU membership by an independent Scotland in years to come, the Scottish government has left it to a group of members of the parliament to welcome the declaration instead. Contrast this with the president of the Corsican assembly welcoming the birth of a new republic, for instance.

Geert Bourgeois. EPA

Meanwhile in Belgium the Flemish nationalist party N-VA, which is part of the ruling coalition, has been put in an awkward position with the arrest warrant. So far, at a national level, the party line has been that this is a legal, not a political, matter and that it is inappropriate to intervene. In contrast, at a regional level Geert Bourgeois, minister-president of Flanders, has condemned the Spanish government and has been tweeting in opposition to the latest moves by the Spanish courts.

Events, dear boy

Overall, the Catalonia crisis may lead to a rise in minority nationalism around Europe in the short-term. But what happens in the longer term is likely to depend on how events in Spain play out. A peaceful and prosperous Republic of Catalonia within the EU would greatly encourage other minority nations to assert themselves – just like the independence of the Baltic states did in the early 1990s.

Equally a descent into chaos would have the opposite effect, as would a decisive victory by pro-Spanish parties in the Catalan election on December 21. In this scenario, the analogy would be the break-up of the former Yugoslavia putting independence movements on the defensive about the dangers of nationalism.

Forward march! Lord Kuernyus

A sobering and crushing defeat for Catalan separatists would reinforce the view in the SNP that they should tread carefully. It would perhaps convince the Flemish and Basque separatists that their gradualist approaches are the right ones.

Despite this uncertainty around the lessons from Catalonia, central governments in London, Paris and Madrid will be in no doubt about the challenge facing them. They have to find a way of rebuilding support for their centralised countries while continuing to retrench their welfare states. Whatever happens in Catalonia, that looks like being one of the key conundrums for decades to come.