Thursday

23rd May 2019

Opinion

Catalonia and Scotland at core of Europe's geopolitical conundrum

  • A demonstration for Catalonian independence in Spain. (Photo: Day Donaldson)

In recent months, the Catalan autonomous government has taken unprecedented political steps towards independence from Spain, angering Madrid and putting EU leaders on edge.

Meanwhile, the Scottish government has doubled down on its bet for independence by calling for a new referendum in 2018.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Support quality EU news

Get instant access to all articles — and 18 year's of archives. 30 days free trial.

... or join as a group

Together, Scotland and Catalonia have spun a complicated web of juxtaposed geopolitical interests, running in parallel to the already complex Brexit negotiations.

Catalonia, located in the north-east of Spain, is one of the richest regions in Europe. Its capital, Barcelona, is a vibrant global metropolis, ranking among Europe’s top 10 tourist destinations.

The region has always asserted itself as being distinct from the rest of Spain.

Catalan independence

In the last five years, a pro-independence movement has gained a parliamentary majority, which is determined to secede from Spain to form an independent Catalan state. In order to do so, it has unilaterally called a binding referendum, which is to take place before the end of the year.

Until recently, the geopolitical leverage of Catalonia has been weak: a strong European Union, with Spain as one of its most reliable members, has treated the independence movement with cold indifference, and sometimes with overt rejection.

For example, during a recent official visit to Spain, Antonio Tajani, the president of the European Parliament, said: “Those who act against the Spanish Constitution are also acting against the European order”.

Then came Crimea, Brexit, Turkey, Trump and populist electoral insurgencies in the Netherlands, France and Germany. All of a sudden, the future of the European Union seemed much less certain. For the first time, Catalonia’s unofficial diplomacy was given a good set of cards to play.

The success of anti-globalisation movements, which foresee a revival of nation state ideologies, caught politicians in Barcelona off guard.

The Catalan pro-independence movement, similar to the one in Scotland, is largely pro-European. Driven by this tradition, the large Catalan political parties have held onto their pro-European views, keeping in line with the European centrist view of further strengthening the EU institutions.

Madrid anti-secession

Madrid’s reaction has been to double down on its anti-secessionist position. The Spanish government lead by Mariano Rajoy, which has the support of the two biggest parties, has insisted on blocking any kind of referendum on Catalan independence.

On March 13th, the Superior Court of Justice of Catalonia sentenced the former Catalan president, Artur Mas, to a ban from holding public office for two years.

President of the Catalan National Assembly Carme Forcadell and several former members of the government are also facing trial for organising a non-binding consultation on independence on the 9th of November of 2014, and for allowing a sovereignty vote in the Catalan parliament without Madrid’s permission.

The level of distrust between Madrid and Barcelona is rising rapidly.

After the approval of the Catalan budget (which solidified the pro-independence majority in power, with the support of the Eurosceptic far-left), Madrid terminated “Operación Dialogo”, a central government operation aimed at improving relations with Barcelona.

In response, the Catalan parliament passed a motion in March allowing for the possibility of an immediate vote on independence in the Catalan parliament, which intended to give the Spanish government less time to prepare for such a vote and impede any legal challenges against it.

Catalan government officials are increasingly worried that Madrid is unwilling to compromise and might be playing a radical end game.

This would mean intervening in Catalan institutions, overtaking the educational and police system, and gradually trying to strengthen Spanish nationalism in the region.

Leaked discussions between the former chief of the anti-fraud office in Catalonia and the former interior minister in Spain appeared to confirm these suspicions.

The first was recorded saying that they will “crush the Catalan health system”, and the latter was caught discussing ways to politically destroy their political opponents in Barcelona.

Meanwhile, Catalonia has been expanding its scope in search of foreign allies, and finding them in unexpected places.

It has long been rumoured that Catalonia and Israel have been keeping friendly diplomatic contacts. These contacts are grounded in Israel’s need for Mediterranean allies, and in the currently lukewarm Israeli-Spanish relations, exemplified by the Spanish vote in the recent UN resolution against Israeli settlements.

Russian roulette

For Russia, Catalan independence is in line with its broader geopolitical strategy.

Seeing that a victory for Marine Le Pen in the French elections this April is now less likely - after François Fillon’s drop in the polls - Russian president Vladimir Putin might be looking for other ways to destabilise European unity, while seeking to increase support among Europeans for Russia’s foreign policy.

There are signs that he has considered Catalonia as a suitable vessel for this: In September of 2016, rumours (soon debunked) were spread on Russian news sites claiming that the Catalan parliament had recognised Crimea as an independent state.

In the United Kingdom, both Westminster and Edinburgh are watching the developments in Catalonia carefully.

Theresa May's government has an interest in weakening the European negotiating position, which is united around securing a post-Brexit deal that makes Britain worse off.

Scotland is playing its hand and going all in: Nicola Sturgeon's decision to call for a new referendum on Scottish independence in 2018 has put relations between Edinburgh and Westminster on the edge of a knife.

The spat between the Spanish state and the Catalan regional government is likely to make the situation even more complicated.

Parliament appears to recognise the potential seriousness of the issue and, in early March, set up an All-Party Parliamentary Group on Catalonia. Interestingly, it was SNP MP George Kerevan who took the initiative for the creation of this group.

Brexit, SNP and Catalan

The Catalonian situation has put the upcoming Brexit negotiations in a tough spot: on one hand there is a strong temptation to use a possible support for a unilateral Scottish independence as a Brexit negotiation card. On the other hand, Europe knows that if it were to accept a fast track for Scottish EU membership, Catalonia would be entitled to a similar treatment.

If denied this, Catalonia could seek economic and political support from the UK, and the UK could offer it, if only to destabilise the EU in retaliation for its refusal to heed its Brexit demands.

Spain, aware of its own difficult position, stated almost immediately after Sturgeon’s announcement that it would respect the results of a new Scottish referendum, but also made it its official doctrine to not allow Scotland to become an EU member state.

In brief, all actors involved have a great deal to lose, and only a few have something to gain.

The current global geopolitical situation is not exactly stable.

Brexit, Trump, the refugee crisis and the emergence of far-right parties throughout Europe have put the future of the European Union in jeopardy. This, ironically, has created a situation where Catalonia is closer than ever to its long sought-after independence but, at the same time, it should restrain itself from acquiring it.

As the situation currently stands, a break away from Spain would serve the interests of those bent on destabilising an already weakened Europe. This is not what Catalonia (or Spain, or Europe for that matter) needs.

But the pro-European, centrist Catalan coalition risks being driven into a corner where it will find itself without a viable alternative.

Both Spain and the EU cannot keep turning a blind eye to the problem. It is also their responsibility to provide an acceptable exit from this situation, either by allowing a referendum, or by reaching a multilateral political agreement with Catalonia.

Not doing so would put Europe’s stability even more at risk, and at the worst possible time.

Adrià Salvador Palau is a PhD-student at the Department of Engineering at the University of Cambridge. He is from Barcelona and has previously published on Catalan and Spanish politics.

Jon Roozenbeek is a PhD-student at the Department of Slavonic Studies at the University of Cambridge. He previously worked as a journalist and editor in the Netherlands, and now studies Ukraine's post-conflict media landscape and online social movements.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

Catalan parliament backs independence vote

Lawmakers in Catalonia voted to set up a referendum for independence, next September, in defiance of Madrid and a recent constitutional court ruling.

May to Scotland: 'Now is not the time' for referendum

The UK prime minister did not rule out a new Scottish referendum, but disputes the timetable. The Scottish first minister responded by accusing London of trying to "undemocratically" block Scots from deciding their fate post-Brexit.

Scotland seeks new independence vote before Brexit

The Scottish first minister said the choice should be made between the fall of 2018 and spring 2019 as to whether Scots want to stay within the UK after a hard Brexit, or break away.

Magazine

Separatism: Making Europe stronger?

The 2014 edition of EUobserver's Regions & Cities magazine looks at separatist movements across Europe and its impact on the union.

News in Brief

  1. Poll: Denmark set to double number of liberal MEPs
  2. European brands 'breaking' chemical safety rules
  3. Report: Merkel was lobbied to accept EU top job
  4. May struggling to get Brexit deal passed at fourth vote
  5. German MPs show interest in 'Magnitsky' sanctions
  6. CoE: Rights violations in Hungary 'must be addressed'
  7. EU affairs ministers rubber-stamp new ban on plastics
  8. Private companies campaign to boost turnout in EU poll

Press freedom and the EU elections

We are campaigning for the next European Commission to appoint a commissioner with a clear mandate to take on the challenge of the protection of freedom, independence and diversity of journalism.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Vote for the EU Sutainable Energy AwardsCast your vote for your favourite EUSEW Award finalist. You choose the winner of 2019 Citizen’s Award.
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersEducation gets refugees into work
  3. Counter BalanceSign the petition to help reform the EU’s Bank
  4. UNICEFChild rights organisations encourage candidates for EU elections to become Child Rights Champions
  5. UNESDAUNESDA Outlines 2019-2024 Aspirations: Sustainability, Responsibility, Competitiveness
  6. Counter BalanceRecord citizens’ input to EU bank’s consultation calls on EIB to abandon fossil fuels
  7. International Partnership for Human RightsAnnual EU-Turkmenistan Human Rights Dialogue takes place in Ashgabat
  8. Nordic Council of MinistersNew campaign: spot, capture and share Traces of North
  9. Nordic Council of MinistersLeading Nordic candidates go head-to-head in EU election debate
  10. Nordic Council of MinistersNew Secretary General: Nordic co-operation must benefit everybody
  11. Platform for Peace and JusticeMEP Kati Piri: “Our red line on Turkey has been crossed”
  12. UNICEF2018 deadliest year yet for children in Syria as war enters 9th year

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic commitment to driving global gender equality
  2. International Partnership for Human RightsMeet your defender: Rasul Jafarov leading human rights defender from Azerbaijan
  3. UNICEFUNICEF Hosts MEPs in Jordan Ahead of Brussels Conference on the Future of Syria
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic talks on parental leave at the UN
  5. International Partnership for Human RightsTrial of Chechen prisoner of conscience and human rights activist Oyub Titiev continues.
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic food policy inspires India to be a sustainable superpower
  7. Nordic Council of MinistersMilestone for Nordic-Baltic e-ID
  8. Counter BalanceEU bank urged to free itself from fossil fuels and take climate leadership
  9. Intercultural Dialogue PlatformRoundtable: Muslim Heresy and the Politics of Human Rights, Dr. Matthew J. Nelson
  10. Platform for Peace and JusticeTurkey suffering from the lack of the rule of law
  11. UNESDASoft Drinks Europe welcomes Tim Brett as its new president
  12. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic ministers take the lead in combatting climate change

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Counter BalanceEuropean Parliament takes incoherent steps on climate in future EU investments
  2. International Partnership For Human RightsKyrgyz authorities have to immediately release human rights defender Azimjon Askarov
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersSeminar on disability and user involvement
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersInternational appetite for Nordic food policies
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersNew Nordic Innovation House in Hong Kong
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Region has chance to become world leader when it comes to start-ups
  7. Nordic Council of MinistersTheresa May: “We will not be turning our backs on the Nordic region”
  8. International Partnership for Human RightsOpen letter to Emmanuel Macron ahead of Uzbek president's visit
  9. International Partnership for Human RightsRaising key human rights concerns during visit of Turkmenistan's foreign minister
  10. Nordic Council of MinistersState of the Nordic Region presented in Brussels
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersThe vital bioeconomy. New issue of “Sustainable Growth the Nordic Way” out now
  12. Nordic Council of MinistersThe Nordic gender effect goes international

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us