Artur Mas is watching next week’s referendum on Scottish independence with an eagle eye. The president of the Spanish region of Catalonia is not alone.
The Scottish vote next Thursday is under scrutiny in a host of European regions where leaders and public opinion are hoping that if Scotland votes to go it alone and leave the United Kingdom, their own regions’ aspirations for independence could gain traction.
Yes, certainly, any Scottish vote for independence will trigger a domino effect for similar situations throughout Europe. Not surprisingly, Spain is worried as are Belgium and France.
In fact, representatives of Catalans, South Tiroleans, Corsicans, Bretons, Frisians and “Finland-Swedes” are headed for Scotland to witness the vote. Even Bavaria in Germany is sending a delegation.
The interest in Scotland is no surprise. History offers few examples of nations splitting up in a consensual way. There was of course the so-called “velvet divorce” between the Czechs and the Slovaks in 1993. And Norway also voted for independence from Sweden in 1905.
But as the creation of Bangladesh illustrates, nation states often go to war when a region seeks secession.
Importantly, it’s not just the rest of Europe that is watching the debate in Scotland. For instance, China is worried that Taiwan could become more confrontational.
Look carefully and it appears that Europe is in the grip of a contradictory movement: even as the “big is beautiful” debate gains traction and the Union of 28 states moves towards more integration — and more countries join the queue to become members of the EU — restless regions in many nations yearn for more autonomy.
It’s about cultural identity, not just in a globalised world, but about identity in a nation state. About being recognised as significant and different — and often about economic interest.
Scotland thinks it would be better off it did not have to share its oil and gas revenues with the rest of the UK. Flanders thinks its funds are being misused by the less prosperous Walloonia region.
Truth be told: it’s not just the countries facing such “secessionist” moves that are struggling to understand the new trend, the wider EU is also not prepared.
A further complication is of course that irrespective of the results of the Scottish vote, Britain itself may end up leaving the EU.
Yes, it’s a mess. As Scotland prepares to vote on Sept 18, the debate appears fairly civilised. Britain has accepted the referendum and says it will abide by the results.
Certainly, Prime Minister David Cameron and other political leaders are campaigning actively — and emotionally — for Scotland to stay in the UK — and even the Queen is reportedly worried about Scottish independence. And interestingly, London is promising all kinds of goodies if Scotland votes “no” to independence next week. But it all seems fairly civilised and – dare I say it – good-natured.
Not so in Spain. Madrid is undoubtedly worried that Scotland’s situation could embolden separatists in the Catalonia region and a tentatively scheduled referendum set for Nov 9 in Catalonia has been ruled unconstitutional by Spanish courts and the Spanish government.
With 7.5 million Catalans speaking their own language and running a large economy in north-eastern Spain, the separatist politicians in Barcelona command huge support. Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has vowed to block Catalan plans for independence referendum and to ignore the results.
In addition to Catalonia, the Basque region of Spain also is home to a budding legion of separatists who want to vote for independence.
Catalan leader Mas has said a “yes” vote in Scotland would be positive for Catalonia’s independence movement.
In Belgium, it’s Flanders that is getting increasingly restless. The symbolic value of what is going to happen in Scotland is very important,” according to Gerolf Annemans, president of Vlaams Belang, a Flemish party calling for Flanders to secede from Belgium.
According to Gerard Dykstra, a spokesman for Corsica Libera, a political party formed from a variety of pro-independence organisations early last year, separating from France is about giving Corsicans their “national rights”.
“We are the lonely people in Europe. We are a nation in Europe that does not have its rights.”
Interestingly both Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond and Artur Mas insist that even though they want to exit their nation states, they want continued EU membership — or re-entry into the EU.
But Brussels has warned that such thinking is naive and that Scotland cannot count on automatic EU membership if it leaves the UK.
The conventional wisdom in Brussels is that Scotland will have to negotiate EU entry just like any other applicant country. And it seems likely that Spain for one — fearing a precedent for Catalonia — will veto Scotland’s membership.
And Salmond should take note: the new European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has said that he does not see any further EU “enlargement” over the next five years.
And in case, Scotland thinks it can cut corners, Salmond may want to chat with his friends in Ankara: Turkey has been trying to negotiate EU membership and the like for almost 50 years. And the discussions could take another fifty.