The October independence referendum is rattling Spain and inspiring secessionist movements across Europe. For better and worse, it’s all about the EU

Note: Original headline “…Wants to Break Free from the EU” corrected to “…Wants to Break Free from Spain”

For all that the European Union has done to soften national borders and foster something of a European polity, Europe remains a continent of nations and regions where language and culture are central to identity. Nowhere is this more evident than in Spain, where Madrid and Barcelona are at loggerheads once more over the controversial issue of Catalan independence.

“For 40 years, Catalan nationalism has been working for secession,” journalist Arcadi Espada told Metropole, but the 2008 financial crisis, during which Catalonia was hit hard, gave the question of independence new life. It reanimated old cultural and linguistic grievances related to the recentralization of powers from the regions to Madrid, a process that began in the late 1990s and accelerated after 2008. According to Andrew Dowling, senior lecturer in Hispanic Studies at Cardiff University, the economic crisis “suddenly made these issues incredibly important.”

Now the government of Catalonia plans to hold a referendum on the issue on October 1, one seemingly designed both to irritate and test the wills of both the Spanish government and the EU. There is a lot to be irritated about: On September 6, the legislation authorizing the plebiscite passed the regional Catalan parliament by 72 votes. The Spanish government called it a “constitutional and democratic atrocity.”

On September 20, Spanish police arrested 14 Catalan politicians and government officials. Spanish authorities also confiscated nine million ballots. However, the regional government is defiant, “The will of the Catalan people cannot be stopped,” said Gabriel Rufian of the pro-independence party ERC (Republican Left Party of Catalonia).

referendum spain catalonia
© Liz Castro / Wikimedia Creative Commons

This will be the first vote of its kind in Europe since the referendum on Scottish independence in September 2014 (defeated by a ten-point margin).

Scottish Lessons

As is common with many nationalist movements, Scottish and Catalan separatism share a sense of unfulfilled potential – the idea that only with full political and economic control can the true power of these regions be unleashed. Catalonia, of course, has hardly been held back; the richest region in Spain, its regional GDP is larger than that of Madrid, making the case for separatism feel oddly bourgeois. Scotland, for its part, benefits from the redistribution of wealth around the United Kingdom, with government spending per head higher than in either England or Wales.

If the Scottish referendum is anything to go by, the Catalans might be well advised to be careful what they wish for. The Scottish National Party (SNP) went for the grand prize three years ago when the time seemed ripe and was defeated firmly if not comprehensively. Now the cause of Scottish nationalism is in limbo, along with the U.K. itself, stuck between the 2016 decision to leave the EU and the supposed exit date of March 2019.

“The SNP are now pinning everything on Brexit being a ‘clusterfuck’ [military slang for fiasco] and the idea that we have to become independent in order to escape the coming economic turmoil,” said David Torrance, columnist for The Herald. However Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s push for a second independence referendum earlier this year was rebuffed by London. With another vote promising only more upheaval, the momentum has gone out of the push for a separation from England.

United in how Much Diversity?

As in Catalonia, Flemish nationalism too is fuelled by an affluent region’s sense of injustice at having to subsidize a poorer one. Still, it remains largely a minority cause, in spite of the electoral success of the nationalist New Flemish Alliance (N-VA). “Only around 5 percent of people polled say Flanders should become an independent state,” said Dave Sinardet, professor of political science at the Free University of Brussels. This has forced the N-VA to shift away from separatism and move toward greater co-federalism within Belgium, “with a stronger focus on a rightwing, [economically] liberal agenda, on immigration and security.” On that point, the EU, with its haphazard response to the 2015 refugee crisis, can be said to have helped the N-VA.To Flemish nationalists, “the EU has failed in the discussion on immigration and terrorism” and thus “the idea of defending identity and defending borders has become stronger in Belgium and Flanders,” according to Carl Devos, professor of political science at Ghent University. The N-VA speaks of a “failing European Union,” calling for firm laws on immigration as necessary to protect Flemish identity, history, and values.

There are times when more Europe can be a solution to national questions – the open border between Austria and Italy has made the Südtirolfrage less important. Support for the EU is especially strong in the Northern Irish border counties, which resent the potential return of checkpoints to the Irish Republic. On the whole, though, the EU has either proved a tremendous fillip – consider how Cornwall benefitted from funding to improve infrastructure and promote its culture – or a usual foil for separatist movements.

Think Continental

In the case of Scottish nationalism, in the late 1980s the SNP made a tactical decision to evolve from an anti- into a pro-European party. In part, this had to do with defining themselves against English nationalism, which remains hostile to Europe, but also as a defense to “charges from Labour and the Conservatives that they were an isolationist, ‘little Scotland’ party,” said Torrance. “To be a member state of the EU made independence seem less scary, more realistic and achievable.” For Milorad Dodik, president of the Republika Srpska region of Bosnia and Herzegovina, criticism of international institutions, including the EU, has helped him sustain his popularity and the cause of ethnic Serb separatism. In Belgium, the N-VA has found it politically useful to use more “Euro-realist” rhetoric, arguing for the repatriation of certain powers and joining the Eurosceptic, anti-federalist European Conservatives and Reformists grouping in the European Parliament. As for Catalonia, “Spanish membership in the EU has not been able to prevent nationalist delirium,” said Espada, “despite the fact that Catalonia has always boasted of being the most pro-European region in Spain. “However, membership makes it impossible to consummate secession. Breaking [up] Spain would be to break Europe.” Indeed, though much depends on turnout and the margin of victory, do not expect either Spain or Europe to budge much on the issue of Catalan independence. “The problem is that the maximum Madrid is prepared to concede is too little for Barcelona,” Dowling concluded. On the critical political and economic questions, “the situation is stuck, and at some point, something has to give.”

referendum spain catalonia
© PENTAX Image / Wikimedia Creative Commons

For Milorad Dodik, president of the Republika Srpska region of Bosnia and Herzegovina, criticism of international institutions, including the EU, has helped him sustain his popularity and the cause of ethnic Serb separatism. In Belgium, the N-VA has found it politically useful to use more “Euro-realist” rhetoric, arguing for the repatriation of certain powers and joining the Eurosceptic, anti-federalist European Conservatives and Reformists grouping in the European Parliament.

As for Catalonia, “Spanish membership in the EU has not been able to prevent nationalist delirium,” said Espada, “despite the fact that Catalonia has always boasted of being the most pro-European region in Spain. “However, membership makes it impossible to consummate secession. Breaking [up] Spain would be to break Europe.” Indeed, though much depends on turnout and the margin of victory, do not expect either Spain or Europe to budge much on the issue of Catalan independence.

“The problem is that the maximum Madrid is prepared to concede is too little for Barcelona,” Dowling concluded. On the critical political and economic questions, “the situation is stuck, and at some point, something has to give.”