I have just returned from spending the week in Barcelona with my family on holiday enjoying the sun, sea and Spanish cuisine. However if there was one thing that struck me the most, it was the number of Catalonian flags that I saw hanging from the majority of apartment blocks throughout the city, all waving in support of an independent Catalonian state. Catalonian independence has been a goal for the autonomous region ever since 1640 after the first ever Catalonian Republic failed following the Reaper’s war. Whilst it is nothing new, it has certainly been a lot more high profile in recent times.
Currently, the Catalonian party “Together for yes” (“Junts pel Sí”) is heading up the charge for independence in the ‘Parlament de Catalunya’. They won 62 out 135 seats in the 2015 Catalonian parliamentary elections (46%) and are the largest party in the chamber. The party has some well-known celebrity backers, including new Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola who even stood as a paper candidate in Barcelona during the last elections.
In 2014 Catalonia held a non-legally binding referendum with two questions on the ballot paper – “a) do you want Catalonia to become a state?” and “b) do you want this state to be independent?” With a turnout of approximately 40%, 1,861,754 people voting Yes/Yes (80.76%). The main problem that the nearly 2 million people who voted for independence have, is that constitutionally and legally they cannot gain independence on their own, and the Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy refuses to allow them a legal referendum of their own.
Now you might be asking why the independence of a small autonomous region in the south east of Spain could possibly matter to the United Kingdom. The answer, is Scotland. In 2014 whilst Catalonia were having their referendum, Scotland were having their own referendum on their own independence. Even after a somewhat decisive 55% of 4 million voters decided to vote to remain part of the UK, Scottish independence is still high in the forefront of British politics. This is due to 56/59 MPs at the 2015 general election being SNP members, and with the 63 SNP MSPs and the 6 Scottish Green MSPs, 53% of Holyrood members are in favour of an independent Scottish state. Not to mention after the UK voted 52%-48% to leave the EU, with Scotland voting 62%-38% to remain, Nicola Sturgeon is confident that this leaves ground for a second referendum to be held.
The reason that they are closer than some might suggest, is because the two regions are actually quite similar. Both have their own language – Catalan for Catalonia and Gaelic in Scotland. Both have similar, but different cultures to the rest of their host country, and both see themselves as fundamentally different to the main government body which wants to keep them together. There are a similar number of people in both regions too – Scotland has roughly 5 million, and Catalonia has roughly 7 million people. To finish it off, both the regions have similar GDPs – around $233 Billion dollars, and both want to remain a part of the EU when (if) they gain independence.
Still, so far it doesn’t really seem that the two have that much of a connection to each other, especially not one that warrants us keeping an eye on what happens in Catalonia. But really the truth is both of them are keeping a close eye on the other, even if you’re not. In the 2014 Scottish referendum Mariano Rajoy was quick to point out the rules of Scotland needing to reapply for EU membership in an attempt to remind Salmond that independence may not be too easy a journey for Scotland.
If Scotland manage to achieve independence, and then are successful in joining the EU, Rajoy will have severe political pressure on his hands. This also applies the other way around. If Catalonia manage to gain independence Sturgeon will definitely be keen to see how they fare in their relationship with the EU, and would definitely use that to further the SNP mission.
The problem, is that Catalonia makes up around 21% of Spain’s $1.2 trillion GDP according to the IMF World Economic outlook (April 2016). This could mean that one of the core EU members will be thrown into economic panic, causing even more trouble for the already economically damaged Eurozone. Scotland only makes up around half of the percentage in relevance to UK GDP when compared to Catalonia and Spain, making the economic impact to the UK much less for Scottish independence.
This means that Spain would most likely do anything they can to aid the Better Together campaign to keep Scotland a part of the UK, even if that means threatening a veto of Scotland’s bid to join the EU. It also means that those who want Scotland to remain a part of the UK ought to keep an eye on Catalonia as an independent state would definitely be more ammunition for Sturgeon and the SNP, especially if they were to use their economic prowess and be a successful new state.
That said, 17 million people voting to take back sovereignty to the UK from the EU can only mean that both Scotland and Catalonia will want a piece of their own freedom. The question, is who will make the first move in the post-Brexit world, and what that could mean for the other. One thing for certain is that both the SNP and Together for Yes would be keen to see how a test run of independence goes across the continent, maybe even giving helpful nudges to the other along the way.