A Game of Scotch Solitaire for Europe (I)
Pyotr ISKENDEROV | 10.10.2014 | WORLD / Europe

A Game of Scotch Solitaire for Europe (I)

«Whenever you fall, pick something up» advises a Scottish proverb. That’s a fairly good description of the current state of separatist movements in Europe. Various nooks and crannies of the Old World eagerly followed September’s referendum on self-determination in Scotland. Now many are trying to absorb and apply the methods used by Scottish separatists in order to advance their own interests - just like the Scots, themselves, post-referendum. 

The deepest reverberations from the events in Scotland were felt in Catalonia where new political skirmishes are rocking a nation already beset by a severe socio-economic crisis. After the Spanish Constitutional Court decided to suspend the Nov. 9 public opinion poll on the sovereignty of Catalonia, the residents of that autonomous region responded with thousands of demonstrations and violent clashes with police on the streets of Barcelona and other Catalan cities. Carme Forcadell, the president of the Catalan National Assembly movement, insisted that nothing will alter the plans of the backers of self-determination for Catalonia: «In spite of everything we will vote on Nov. 9, because that is what most Catalans demand». According to Oriol Junqueras, the president of the pro-independence party the Republican Left of Catalonia, «there is no constitutional basis to deny the Catalans the right to express their opinion». 

The debates about whether to hold a plebiscite or poll on self-determination in Catalonia grew shriller a few months ago, for the most part triggered by the Scottish referendum on self-determination. Although Scottish society was deeply divided (that disconnect was evident even between cities - Dundee and Glasgow were in favor of independence, while Edinburgh and Aberdeen opposed it), a precedent had been set for holding a referendum on the self-determination of one part of an EU member state. Moreover, the «center» agreed in advance to recognize the declared intent of the «breakaway» province. And afterwards, the world did not end, the plebiscite was held, and other regions of the «united Europe» that also aspire to self-determination then asked, «And what about us?»

Many in Europe have a case just as compelling as the Scots’ for demanding such a referendum. And many factors promote sympathy for the idea of secession. A quick look at contemporary Europe reveals pro-secession leanings not only in Catalonia, but also in the Basque Country (especially if one views the issue through the prism of the relationship between Spain and France), Corsica, Belgium, northern Italy’s Veneto region, Northern Ireland, Wales, and even to some extent in Bavaria. 

Let’s begin with Great Britain. This victory for the opponents of Scottish independence will not in and of itself resolve the problem of British unity. But it can serve as a starting point in the ensuing intense debates about how to reform the political, financial, social (etc.) relationship between London and Edinburgh. Any problems that arise there will become a new catalyst for separatist sentiments. Right on the heels of the Scottish referendum, British Prime Minister David Cameron attempted to renege on the promises he had made during his May 2014 visit to Scotland, when he pledged to transfer key administrative, financial, and economic powers over to Edinburgh. And new discussions – including those within the European Union - will inevitably center on this question.

The EU is in a difficult position. On one hand, Brussels was grateful for the outcome of the Scottish referendum, but on the other - David Cameron has his own plans to pull the UK out of the European Union. Hence the seemingly paradoxical, yet highly charged statement by European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso. He welcomed «the decision of the Scottish people to maintain the unity of the United Kingdom,» and immediately promised that the European Commission would «continue to engage in a constructive dialog with the Scottish Government, in areas under its responsibility that are important to Scotland’s future, including jobs and growth, energy, climate change and the environment, and smarter regulation».

In reality, this means that if the UK still quits the European Union after 2017, Brussels can switch tactics and support separatism for the inhabitants of Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales in order to retain them in its ranks as independent states. One must agree with John Curtice, a professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow. He believes that «this will not be the last word in the discussions over Great Britain’s constitutional future. It will come up again in the next six months. And it raises new constitutional questions for the rest of the United Kingdom». 

The backers of self-determination for Northern Ireland and Wales take a similar stance. Gerry Adams, the leader of Northern Ireland’s Sinn Fein party, has asked that Northern Ireland be allowed to exercise its right to hold a referendum. He is convinced that «[i]t is time for the people who share this island to have a respectful and informed debate with regard to Irish Unity or continued partition». [1] The leader of the Party of Wales, Leanne Wood, warned that her followers will be watching «to see exactly what is on offer to Scotland and then to know what we can push for in Wales too».

Although new referendums on the shores of Foggy Albion could continue for many years, the situation in Spain might come to a head in the next few weeks. Catalonia’s president, Artur Mas, has made it clear that because the international community agreed to recognize the results of the referendum in Scotland, then objectively they must take a similar position in regard to Catalonia. He stressed that the autonomous region will continue to work to secure its sovereignty, because «the Catalan process feels reinforced by this lesson in democracy». Mas warned Madrid that it would be a mistake «to block a national poll in Catalonia». 

There’s a good reason that the leaders of the Catalan secessionists admire not only their fellow advocates for independence in Scotland, but also the British prime minister, who provided the framework needed to hold a plebiscite in his country. It should be noted that the wording developed for the Catalan referendum is extremely flexible. Residents of the autonomous region will be asked to answer two questions in succession: «Do you want Catalonia to become a state?» And, if yes, «Do you want that state to be independent?» In addition, the leaders of Catalonia are calling the referendum «a non-binding vote». They are leaving the door open for talks with the central authorities, including, as Artur Mas noted in a speech on Sept. 27, «for making the necessary changes...at Spanish level». In other words, the referendum itself can be seen as one element in the political haggling over the redistribution of powers (primarily financial) between Madrid and Barcelona. 

Even given all of this, a trajectory is clearly visible in the rise of separatist movements in Europe. «Spain and Belgium fear a rise of separatism, and in the United Kingdom, Scottish independence could foreshadow a similar move in the near future by Northern Ireland», warns Deutsche Welle.

However, global events in recent decades show that, as a rule, when a referendum is held, supporters of independence movements lose. The French-speaking Canadian province of Quebec is one example. At the end of the 20th century two plebiscites on independence were conducted - and the separatists prevailed in neither of them. However, an encouraging pattern can be discerned. Although 59.6% of those who cast ballots in Quebec’s 1980 referendum on independence voted against it, that number had decreased to only 50.6% by 1995. 

The idea of secession is enjoying increasing support in Northern Italy as well. During a March 2014 public poll in the Veneto region (headquartered in Venice) regarding the establishment of the «Republic of Veneto» and its withdrawal from Italy, 89% of those who responded favored the formation of a new independent state. It is interesting that backers of an independent Veneto also want to retain a place for their region within both NATO and the EU (as do the Scots), as well to continue using the euro.

As for Catalonia, they might also get an outcome that favors self-determination. In 2009-2010, over 90% of those who took part in a poll asking whether they endorsed independence for Catalonia answered that question in the affirmative. «If such a referendum truly does take place, it is very likely that it will create an unparalleled precedent in the history of the construction of a united Europe. Therefore, the Spanish government will probably devise yet more obstacles to prevent it,» claims the French edition of Atlantico, concluding, «in any event, the current prospects for unifying our continent look less than promising». 

(To be continued)

[1] The Morning Ireland, 19.09.2014