In Spain’s Catalan region, all eyes are on Scotland’s secession vote

September 17, 2014, 9:00 AM UTC
Catalan Independence Rally In Barcelona
BARCELONA, SPAIN - SEPTEMBER 11: Demonstrators march during a Pro-Independence demonstration as part of the celebrations of the National Day of Catalonia on September 11, 2014 in Barcelona, Spain. Thousands of Catalans celebrating the 'Diada de Catalunya', are using it as an opportunity to hold demonstrations to demand the right to hold a self-determination referendum next November. (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
Photograph by David Ramos—Getty Images

Secessionist fever is running hot in Spain’s Catalonia region in the wake of the September 11 Diada, an annual Catalan national celebration. This year, the celebration brought out hundreds of thousands of residents who support a referendum on independence from Spain. The participants formed a giant ‘V’ (for ‘vote’) in the streets of Barcelona.

And so, like many pro-independence Catalans, Dolors Fornaguera will be watching Scotland’s September 18 independence vote very closely.

“We’re looking for the same thing as Scotland. But they have an advantage: although their government is putting up roadblocks, they can vote,” says Fornaguera, 62, who works in a natural food store in Barcelona’s Les Corts neighborhood.

For independentista Catalans like Fornaguera, the Scottish vote is exactly what they want—a chance to vote on independence, which Spain’s central government, led by conservative Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, has so far denied them.

“Scotland is a very important mirror for Catalonia,” says Ignacio Lago, a professor of political science at Barcelona’s Pompeu Fabra University.

And for political observers like Lago, the result of the Scotland vote will have profound implications on secession movements in Catalonia and the rest of Europe.

A ‘No’ vote on Scottish secession would largely leave the U.K. and Europe in its status quo. But a ‘Yes’ vote would force the European Union to decide if and how it will grant membership to breakaway regions, and it will offer a useful indication for how businesses and investors will respond to the uncertainty of these new nation states (the Royal Bank of Scotland plans to move its headquarters to London if Scotland breaks from the U.K.).

“It will serve to answer a lot of questions,” says Stanford University political science researcher Toni Rodón. “How will the U.K. react? Europe? The markets? If ‘Yes’ wins and these worries dissipate, it will have a positive effect for Catalan independentistas. More people would join the bandwagon if there were less uncertainty.”

But it’s unlikely integration into the EU would go smoothly, says Antonio Roldán, a London-based political risk analyst with the Eurasia Group. There are independence movements across Europe, from Belgium to northern Italy to Corsica, and the EU does not want to encourage them.

“Talking with people in Brussels [the EU capital], my perception is that the membership processes will be much longer and complicated than nationalists say,” Roldán says. “No one wants to send a message that it’s easy to get in the EU, because then you open the door to regionalization and breakup of the states of Europe.”

If that is true, what will the Scottish vote really mean for Catalans?

At a basic level, its mere existence will reinforce support for a referendum inside Catalonia, where about 75% of the residents want one, says Stanford’s Rodón.

“We think Scotland has won because they have the right to vote,” says Josep Rull, the general coordinator of Convergéncia Democrática de Catalunya, the political party that leads Catalonia’s coalition government and supports a referendum. “For the Catalan case, Scotland shows how the things are done. Agreed-upon, democratic, modern: The 21st century.”

A ‘No’ vote would have little effect on pro-independence voters, says Pompeu Fabra University political scientist Francesc Pallarés. Until recently, it was seen as a foregone conclusion, and online betting sites still strongly favor a ‘No’ vote. But a ‘Yes’ vote would be an emotional boon.

A ‘Yes’ vote would not likely lead Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to authorize a Catalan independence referendum, which is tentatively scheduled for November 9— something he has repeatedly called unconstitutional—it could force him to offer concessions on issues that most irritate Catalans. Such a move would bolster the efforts of moderate Catalan politicians and voters who aren’t eager to split from Spain.

Catalans have long felt mistreated by Spain’s central government in Madrid, which they believe takes money they earned through honest labor and then misspends or steals it. The Catalan government desires more control of tax collection and spending, and more autonomy on the use of the Catalan language (instead of Castilian Spanish).

Many of these issues were addressed in a regional autonomy statute passed by the Spanish congress and approved in a referendum by the Catalan people in 2006. But the most important parts were struck down by the country’s constitutional court in 2010, a turnaround that was seen as dishonest on the part of the central government and led to the current boom in secessionist sentiment.

According to the Eurasia Group’s Roldán, support for independence was only in the 10-15% range beforehand. Today, polls show it running around 50%.

For centuries, Catalonia and Spain have attempted to find ways to coexist. Now, the Scottish vote may finally force them to find one, or push them apart for good.

“The Spanish economic model has always been disastrous. It began based on slavery, conquest. And the corruption in the Spanish economy has been brutal for many years,” says Miquel Rodríguez, 50, as he strings a tennis racket in a Barcelona sporting goods store.

He says he would vote ‘Yes’ if forced to choose on independence. Still, he would rather have an option that would improve Catalonia’s situation while leaving the country intact.

“There is a route that has never been investigated enough, or promoted,” he says “We Catalans are tired of not being loved by Spain. What would happen if they cared for us? My answer is, I don’t know, but it would be very good.”