Financial Times

November 27, 2013 7:36 pm

Catalans look to Scotland to lead the way towards independence

By Tobias Buck in Madrid

Catalan nationalists looked with envy to Glasgow this week, where Scottish leaders unveiled a 667-page blueprint detailing their vision for an independent Scotland.

Over the past year, their own calls for a break with Spain and an independent Catalan state have grown more insistent by the day. They have held demonstrations attended by hundreds of thousands, and seen a steady rise in popular support for independence in the region.

Unlike the national movement in Scotland, however, they have yet to publish a detailed blueprint spelling out what a breakaway state would look like. More importantly, they have also yet to work out how – or when – to hold a referendum on Catalan independence.

“It seems we have two categories of Europeans here – some who are allowed to vote and some who are not,” said Ricard Gené, a senior member of the Catalan National Assembly (ANC), the grassroots movement that has led the popular push for independence. “The Scottish path is the one we want to follow. The problem is that Spain will not allow a referendum.”

The ANC and other pro-independence forces in Catalonia insist that a referendum, or a more informal consultation, should go ahead next year. In the Catalan parliament, however, the main nationalist parties continue to squabble over when exactly to hold a plebiscite, and what precise question to put to voters. On Tuesday, the pro-independence parties in parliament decided to postpone a motion spelling out the referendum timetable.

The national government in Madrid is fiercely opposed to creating a Catalan state, and argues that even a referendum would violate the Spanish constitution.

The hope among Catalan activists now is that the build-up to the Scottish referendum on September 18 next year will raise the pressure on the Spanish government to follow the UK example and allow a vote to go ahead. What is more, the Scottish process could help provide answers to some of the deep political and economic challenges that would be faced by a Catalan breakaway from Spain. These include division of the national debt burden, how and when to re-enter the EU and what currency the new state would use.

Both Scottish and Catalan nationalists have made clear they want to remain part of the EU, and want to continue using the British pound and the euro as before. But both the European Commission and national governments have made clear repeatedly that any breakaway state will have formally to apply for re-entry and will need the backing from all national capitals, including Madrid.

For the moment, the Spanish government is reluctant to spell out publicly what it thinks of the Scottish independence push, describing it as an “internal” British affair. But, speaking at a press conference on Wednesday night, Mariano Rajoy offered a note of caution to Scots and Catalans alike.

He stressed again that any breakaway state would automatically end up outside the EU, and added: “It does not help Europeans when they embark on go-it-alone adventures, where the point of departure is clear but the point of arrival is uncertain.”

José Ignacio Torreblanca, a senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said: “The Spanish government sees this with a bit of fear and apprehension.”

“In the case of Scotland, you have a process that is managed with a high degree of consensus and calm and with a completely open end. Secession is a possible outcome and both actors are willing to accept this as an outcome. That is a big contrast with the Spanish situation,” Mr Torreblanca said.

Government officials insist that the Scottish referendum will not serve as a precedent for Catalonia. They argue that Spain’s constitution, with its emphasis on the “indissoluble unity of the Spanish Nation”, allows no flexibility on territorial sovereignty. “You cannot divide sovereignty within Spain,” the government official said.

Catalan nationalists, meanwhile, are convinced that their own quest would not be derailed should the Scots decide to remain part of Britain, as polls suggest they will. “Some people argue that it could affect us [negatively],” said Mr Gené. “But all the polls suggest that there is stronger backing for independence in Catalonia than in Scotland. I don’t think the Scottish referendum will be decisive for Catalonia.”