Financial Times


September 17, 2014 1:49 pm

Madrid is determined to prevent ‘secession contagion’

By Tobias Buck in Madrid


Barcelona is the capital city of Spain's Catalonia region

They are too polite to say so directly, even in private. But Spanish officials find it hard to disguise their baffled irritation at the political drama unfolding on the British Isles.

Why, they ask, did the UK government allow Scotland to hold a referendum on independence and on such terms? How could London have allowed things to get to this stage? What moved David Cameron to take a political gamble on nothing less than the unity of the United Kingdom? 

Whatever the reason, Spanish officials are adamant they will not follow the same path. Political leaders in the northern region of Catalonia have called for their own independence referendum, albeit non-binding, less than two months from now. In Madrid, however, there is no question that the Catalan vote can and will be stopped. The Scottish independence referendum, one top official declares, was a major mistake. “And we won’t be making the same mistake.”

Madrid has always insisted that Scotland and Catalonia are fundamentally different cases. Above all else, officials argue that Spain’s constitution, with its emphasis on the “indissoluble unity” of the nation, presents an immovable barrier against secession. Neither does it allow room for a regional referendum, such as the one that Catalan leaders have called for November 9. Spain’s rejection of the planned Catalan plebiscite, officials say, is not a matter of political calculation – the country’s constitution simply gives them no other choice.

Fact and friction in Catalonia’s quest for independence

Catalans holding independentist flags (Estelada) gather on Gran Via de les Corts Catalanes during celebrations of Catalonia National Day (Diada) in Barcelona on September 11, 2014. Red and yellow flags filled the streets of Barcelona today as Catalan nationalists fired up by Scotland's independence referendum rallied to demand a vote on breaking away from Spain. Demonstrators planned to mass in the late afternoon along two central Barcelona avenues in the shape of a giant letter "V" for vote. AFP PHOTO/ QUIQUE GARCIA (Photo credit should read QUIQUE GARCIA/AFP/Getty Images)

Lines have been drawn, imaginary or not, in a sham debate in which neither side pays any attention to the other,writes Roula Khalaf, from a Scottish-themed bar in Barcelona.

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Yet, as much as Madrid insists on the stark contrast between the two movements, Spanish politicians know only too well that the Scottish referendum has become a crucial point of reference. The Catalan campaign is drawing both inspiration and encouragement from the Scottish referendum. The mere fact that it is happening suggests that a peaceful break-up of a western European state, even after three centuries of union, is in fact possible.

In practical terms, Catalan leaders hope that Scotland will function as something of an institutional icebreaker, clearing a safe passage for the new Catalan state towards Brussels and EU membership. Unfortunately for Scotland (and Catalonia), one of the most menacing obstacles along the way is Spain itself. Like other European capitals, Madrid has the power to veto the application from Edinburgh, or, at the very least, to make the process as slow and unpleasant as possible.

So far, Spanish officials have been uniformly reluctant to explain how Madrid would deal with an independent Scotland, or how the government would view a Scottish application to join the EU. Spain, so the official line goes, will formulate a position when and if the matter arises and will judge any EU bid by Scotland on its merits.

Analysts say Spain may ultimately not be able, or willing, to prevent the Scots from reaching their destination. But neither does Madrid have any incentive to make it a fast and pleasant journey, as Mariano Rajoy, Spain’s prime minister, made clear in parliament on Wednesday. “Everyone in Europe believes that these processes are enormously negative . . . They produce economic recession and poverty for all,” Mr Rajoy warned.

Spanish leaders are also quick to point to a number of legal obstacles facing a Scottish bid to rejoin the union. Ratification alone, says one senior Spanish official, would take at least two years. From beginning to end, he adds, “this process will be at least five years”.

In the meantime, the message from Madrid is that Catalans should be careful what they wish for. A Scottish vote in favour of secession, officials say, will do nothing to soften Spain’s hostility to an independence referendum in Catalonia – on the contrary. It will persuade the Spanish government that it was utterly right to avoid the referendum risk and stiffen its resolve to prevent a Catalan plebiscite at all costs.

What is more, there is growing confidence in Madrid that its hard line against regional independence movements is starting to echo in other European capitals. Spanish officials believe that leaders in Berlin, Brussels, Paris and Rome are increasingly alert to the economic and political risks posed by secessionist movements across the continent.

“The attitude of EU members towards secession will get tougher,” one senior Spanish official predicts. “Everyone will be keen to avoid contagion.”