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A Good Year (So Far) for Europe’s Separatists

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The flags of Scotland and the United Kingdom. Image: The Laird of Oldham /Flickr

The European Union’s (EU) separatist movements have never had it so good. Faltering economic conditions, unpopular austerity measures and ‘out of touch’ governments have combined to reignite secessionism like never before. As a result, separatist fervour has never been so vocal – both in public and the national corridors of power. And there’s more to come.

From one ‘union’ to another?

The Scottish National Party’s (SNP) runaway success in the recent UK parliamentary elections was by no means unexpected. The party’s landslide victory ‘north of the border’ built on last year’s effective (but ultimately unsuccessful) independence referendum campaign. As a result, Westminster now plays host to a campaign-experienced nationalist party that will not only highlight the different ideals that Scotland has from the rest of the UK, but will also seek to capitalize on the final outcome of the Brexit referendum scheduled for 2016/17.

If the majority of the UK electorate votes to leave the EU, a second referendum for an independent and EU-friendly Scotland is the logical next step. It’s highly likely that the SNP’s rallying call for this referendum will be for ‘a Scotland outside the UK but inside the EU’. Indeed, it’s been speculated that this effort could be supported by the EU, which remains determined to keep at least part of the British mainland inside the union. Consequently, the final outcome of a successful independence referendum might result in Scotland becoming the UK’s legal successor in Brussels.

The omens are good. With 56 out of the 59 Scottish seats at Westminster in its hands – not to mention its control of Holyrood – the SNP now has more opportunities than ever before to make the case that Scotland is drifting further apart from the rest of the UK. Indeed, even if the referendum results in the UK staying in the EU, divisions between the different parts of the country will inevitably be aggravated over the course of what is likely to be a bitterly contested campaign. Expect the SNP to intensify its efforts to portray the British government as not representing Scottish interests in the years ahead.

Meanwhile, in Catalonia…

Unlike their Scottish counterparts, pro-independence parties in Catalonia have declared regional elections scheduled for September 27th as a “ referendum on independence”. This declaration undoubtedly adds pressure to a Spanish government that continues to ignore similar calls for an independent Catalan homeland like last year’s non-binding referendum. Further pressure is likely to come in the shape of decisive separatist victory. This will provide the alliance of pro-independence parties that will form Catalonia’s new regional government with a sufficiently robust mandate to make an even greater push for an independent Catalan state.

Indeed, a recently-published roadmap outlined the 18 month process that would guide Catalonia’s independence from the rest of Spain. Parallel government institutions would be set up and negotiations with Spain and the EU on a new form of relationship will begin. Following a referendum on a new constitution Catalonia, would then expect to be an independent state by no later than 2017. The paper also states that the signatories remain open to an offer from the Spanish state of an alternative binding referendum on the independence of Catalonia.

Opponents were quick to cast doubt over the feasibility of the roadmap. For a start, the Spanish government does not view this September’s elections as a referendum, a decision that’s by no means lost on Catalonia’s separatists. In response, the Catalan President Artur Mas recently declared that independence rests on garnering foreign support. Following the elections, he expects the EU to act as a mediator between Catalonia and the Spanish state. But the EU has no interest in accepting this role. Like Scotland, the “Catalan question” is viewed by Brussels as an ‘internal issue’, which means that an EU-brokered independence seems unlikely.

(Further) trouble ahead?

Catalonia’s separatist parties have in recent weeks faced other issues. Recent local elections have resulted in Mas’ Convergència i Unió (CiU) losing ground to several left-wing parties to such an extent that the Catalan president’s future rests on the final outcome of September’s regional elections. To compound matters, research suggests that support for Catalan independence has slightly decreased, whereas support for enhanced autonomy remains consistent. If so, then turning Catalonia’s regional elections into a referendum on independence seems misguided, to say the least.

Paradoxically, this September’s Catalan elections might be of even less importance to the separatist cause than national elections scheduled for later in the year. Separatists in Catalonia (and other parts of Spain) often argue that while Spain is de jure a federal state, there is a lack of federal spirit within the country and its institutions. Indeed, the ruling conservative Partido Popular is seen as the embodiment of this lack of spirit (it should also be noted that it received 7% of the vote in Catalonia’s last local elections). A change in government in Madrid could, therefore, result in renewed dialogue between the central and the Catalan government. That said, the country’s conservative-dominated constitutional court will continue to pose a formidable challenge to increased Catalan autonomy, let alone full Catalan independence, irrespective of the final outcome of the general election.

The future’s bright

Irrespective of what happens in Spain, 2015 has undoubtedly been a pivotal year for the EU’s separatist parties. The SNP’s electoral success has not only changed the traditional ‘makeup’ of British politics, it’s also shown that separatist parties now have the potential to impact ‘national’ as well as ‘regional’ politics – much like the Flemish N-VA demonstrated last year when it entered the Belgian government. Indeed, this might only be the start of the SNP’s ‘golden era’, given that it might achieve its goals as early as 2017. That’s why its recent electoral ‘victory’ is likely to be studied closely in Catalonia and beyond.

Matthias Bieri is a Researcher in the “Swiss and Euro-Atlantic Security” team at the Center for Security Studies (CSS), ETH Zürich. He is co-editor of the policy brief series “CSS Analyses in Security Policy” and author of Kosovo between Stagnation and Transformation.

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