Cristina Sen, Barcelona 3 July 2022
Demonstration in favour of a second referendum in Scotland SOPA Images / Getty
The Catalan Government focuses on the role of the EU in the face of an anti-Brexit referendum
The debate opened after this week’s announcement of a consultative referendum in Scotland in October 2023 has many faces from the Spanish and Catalan political point of view. The Catalan Government is once again looking to Edinburgh, but its main focus is on the European Union. It is where it considers that there is some room for manoeuvre – at least in discursive terms – on the understanding that one of the main arguments put forward by the Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, for calling a referendum on self-determination is Scotland’s rejection of Brexit.
The debate is reverberating in Spanish and Catalan politics, but with a very different set-up to that of 2014 – when a London-backed referendum was held in which the Yes side lost – and the Catalan 2017 referendum. Now, Boris Johnson does not support the referendum, it is possible that the Supreme Court, which Sturgeon has asked to rule, will say no, and it will also be rejected in the Westminster Parliament. A very unfavourable context for independence. But even so, the Scottish movement – analysed from various quarters as an internal strategy of the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) and not as a real desire to hold a referendum – is going to have its repercussions.
Looking to Brussels, sources in the Department of External Action indicate that “it will be very interesting to see what role the EU plays. No one doubts that more or less publicly this time it will give support to the Scottish desire for independence”. Victòria Alsina’s department is working on the argument that the doors of Europe could be opened for Scotland and, therefore, for Catalonia in the future. But the analysts consulted consider that in the current tough context it is even more difficult for the EU to agree to discuss borders.
The Catalan socialists indicate that Brussels will not change its policy on territorial integrity.
Brussels knows that the majority of Scots would like to be in the EU,” says Marc Sanjaume, professor of Political Theory (UPF), “and very possibly would like Scotland to return, the question is whether this portfolio is powerful enough to change EU policy. In the European Union, he reminds us, any threat to the integrity of member states is dealt with with leaden feet.
The Socialists stress the profoundly pro-European nature of the Scots, but consider that to think that the European Union will facilitate Scotland’s entry “is self-delusion”. Moreover, they point out, “the EU has no interest in the secession of Catalonia, especially after the Russian plot”.
The debate between London and Edinburgh is multi-layered. The No from the British government is an essential element compared to 2014 and a “break” also for the central government. Nor does Sturgeon want a consultation outside the legal framework. To begin with, says Sanjaume, a member of the board of Òmnium, the announcement should be read as a strategic move towards the rank and file of her party, rather than a firm intention to hold a referendum.
Johnson’s No and an expected rejection by the Supreme Court and Parliament change the paradigm of 2014.
There is no public demand now, and what the SNP leader is doing is giving an outlet for a promise. What is interesting is to look at what the Supreme Court might say about Sturgeon’s referendum law. We will have to know if there is unanimity of opinion, even if it could rule along the lines of the Supreme Court of Canada – which in 1998 established how Quebec should approach the right to secede, says Sanjaume.
Another question to watch will be whether the Supreme Court considers that it is Westminster that should rule on the referendum, thus giving the decision a politically relevant character. What he minimises is the option of holding a plebiscite election if Sturgeon is denied the referendum. “I don’t think Scotland will do a 1-O”, the political scientist stresses.
The debate on the right to self-determination that has restarted in Scotland is also influenced by the so-called “contagion effect” in both Britain and Spain. Jean-Baptiste Harguindéguy, co-author of the study “Comparing independence referendums: Why some states accept them and others do not”, considers it highly unlikely that Johnson will allow it as it could open a Pandora’s box in Northern Ireland, where Sinn Féin won the elections. A domino effect whose territorial debate can be extrapolated to Spain.
Professor Sanjaume points out that Sturgeon’s announcement responds to an internal strategy and not to a real will.
This professor of Political Science (UPF) comments that the SNP movement is also playing on Boris Johnson’s current situation of weakness. She is taking advantage of this weakness, but the Scottish leader knows that she must bear in mind that there could be a change in the London Executive, “and if the scenario changes, she has a lot to lose”.
Sturgeon’s move is seen as a strategy of tension – evidently not exclusive to Scotland – that is also aimed at the party’s grassroots. But to call a referendum she needs a strong mobilisation that is not currently being seen, nor is it being seen in Catalonia, according to the political scientist. Along these lines, the socialists predict that Catalan independence will want to take advantage of this second announcement in Scotland to “breathe a little life” into the movement, which has been very demobilised according to the latest polls.
To gauge the trajectory of this new stage, it will first be necessary to know what the Supreme Court decides.