Despite Scotland’s choice, a November 9 vote could still tear Spain apart

September 26, 2014


The Scots voted against independence last week, by a fair margin and most commentary from business leaders and financial analysts began with “a sigh of relief” – followed by a wary recognition that serious reform to Britain’s system of government had been promised, and that might again disturb the delicate nerves of investors.

The wariness is right. The nationalist surge isn’t over.

Attention paid to nationalism in Europe has recently focussed on movements of the right in France, Italy, the UK the Netherlands, Greece, Sweden, Hungary and Finland. The groups are diverse, with some solidly democratic and others racist. But all tend to be hostile to immigration; to the European Union; and to liberal policies.

The present surge isn’t like that. The Scottish National Party had its thuggish supporters, but the Party itself is enthusiastically pro-EU, friendly to immigrants (though Scotland has proportionately many fewer than England); and, ideologically, a mix of liberal and social democratic. And because of that, it presented a larger challenge to the integrity of the British state than anything on the far right. Decent people could vote for it.

Now, it has a comrade in arms – which could pose a greater threat to a major European state: even spark conflict. It’s the movement for independence in Catalonia, in Spain. And unlike the laissez-faire British, the Spanish government is going to fight, not the prospect of Catalonia breaking away, but the right of the Catalans to vote at all.

Unlike the British – too cunning to have a constitution that binds the hands of legislators – Spain follows most international practice in having one. It’s quite specific that no part of Spain should defect. There’s an early clause which says that “The Constitution is based on the indissoluble unity of the Spanish Nation, the common and indivisible homeland of all Spaniards;” the king is “the symbol of (Spain’s) unity and permanence” and the “mission of the armed forces is to… defend its territorial integrity and the constitutional order”

Professor Montserrat Guibernau of Queen Mary’s College at the University of London – herself a Catalan, and an expert on nationalism – believes that the Spanish state has itself to blame for the position it’s now in. “Over the years the region has asked for greater devolution and autonomy: it was refused. So they have turned to independence, and most of the people are behind it.”

The Catalonian government has set the date of November 9 this year for an independence vote. The region’s president, Arturo Mas, said in Barcelona, the regional capital last week  that “If they think in Madrid that by using legal frameworks they can stop the political will of the majority of the Catalan people they are wrong… It is something we will have to fight for.”

But ‘they’ in Madrid do intend to use the law to stop the vote. The constitutional court has already declared ‘null and void’ a move by the regional parliament last year to declare Catalonia ‘sovereign’: it’s also likely to reject the region’s move to an independence referendum.

Catalonia is one of the wealthiest parts of Spain, and judges that it could, if freed from a larger nation still struggling with the effects of recession, get richer. After painful reforms, Spain’s economy is improving – but unemployment is over 25 percent (50 percent for the young) and there’s a strong risk of long-term deflation.

Scottish nationalism has for many years held out the prospect of greater wealth through full control of the North Sea oil: Catalonia hasn’t got oil, but it has got a stronger economy than the state which enfolds it, and in Barcelona it has one of the loveliest cities in Europe.

Both the British and the Spanish state have been neglectful of their regions, if in quite different ways. The creation of regional assemblies in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales left England – 85 percent of the total UK population of 64 million – with no separate voice of its own. Scots, Irish and Welsh members of parliament can vote on all-UK measures which mostly affect the English: the English MPs can’t vote on the health, transport, justice and other reserved issues in the regions. Now, Scotland has been promised still more powers by politicians hoping to keep it in the UK, and a call for greater equity mounts in England.

The Spanish government doesn’t want to go through the suspense that its British counterparts suffered during the Scots’ vote: it wants to stop a vote taking place. Yet the confrontation which now looms could have been avoided – according to Guibernau – had it entered into a real debate on devolution.

Independence for Catalonia’s 7.5 million people is as bad an idea as it would have been for Scotland’s 5.3 million. The challenges facing Europe, and the globe, are now as large as any in the lifetimes of most of us. They demand a response by states large enough to carry the burdens of managing global disorder, and united enough to take hard decisions.

There is a way to avoid damaging separations. Britain is already involved in a – certainly testing – exercise to restructure a union settlement of some 300 years. Spain should follow suit: the regional government’s pollsters recently showed that though a plurality – 45 percent – want independence, 23 percent are content with its current autonomy and 20 percent favor greater integration with Spain (the rest don’t know). With only a little more than half of the respondents calling for separation, a serious negotiation between the regional and national governments could produce a devolutionary settlement that moderate nationalists could accept.

In the end, the existing state authorities have the responsibility to find new ways to preserve unity. That the two strongest nationalist movements in Europe have leaderships that are liberal and politically moderate gives hope for avoiding a confrontation that could turn ugly.

In a little over a year’s time – in October 2015 – Spain will mark 40 years of democratic rule, after the end of the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco. It should celebrate them united.


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see

The affirmation that only “large” states can deal with current global challenges is totally unfounded in both political and economic terms. That may have been the case in the 20th century…Not in today’s Europe.

Posted by plcostello | Report as abusive

Thanks for your constructive article.

But first, allow me to correct you a small mistake: Catalan’s president name is Artur Mas.

And now my comment on why your proposal can not be applied:
1.- Main difference between Scotland and Catalonia has been than in the later movement for independence has been driven by people. Politicians followed them. Therefore a simple agreement between politicians will not be enough. People must accept it. If not, they will continue passing above politicians.
2.- Spanish ruling class mentality is very xenophobic against catalan culture, mentality and politics. To be clear, Spanish main-politics for last 3 centuries has been to exterminate-assimilate catalans. Catalans simple existence (history, nation,language) is negated at spanish schools or media. Can be this be changed now if 30 years of democracy did nothing to change this mentality ?. I presume not.
3.- Devolutionary Settlement. What can be agreed on it ? : Culture ?, Schools ?, Finances ?. All 3 were already included in 1979 Statute. All 3 were included in 2006 Statute proposal. Both violated by every Spanish government. What can be offered now ?. A big problem is most catalan people do not trust any more cheater Spanish govts. And remember my first point: no agreement can be applied if catalan people does not accept it.

Anyway, thanks again for your article. And … more proposals will be welcome.

Posted by ManelSR | Report as abusive

Your proposal is fair and intelligent, Mr Lloyd.

The problem is, what are the subjects to negotiate? Money or language? Tangible or intangible? Or both?

Money is impossible to negotiate because currently Spain can’t forbid 16,000 MEUR in its national budget. Mr Monago, from Extremadura, has already warned that he will never accept a negotiation resulting in a loss of 4,000 MEUR for Extremadura.

And what about language, culture, and so on? Well, PP has been complaining the linguistic policies in Catalonia and warming up public opinion against Catalan language and Catalan policies for the last 8-10 years. Do you imagine Mr Rajoy will change 180 degrees his speech just now?

Posted by dgimeno | Report as abusive

Here’s a foreigners take:

If Scotland’s voting “no” to independence can wrench the United Kingdom the way it appears to be doing, imagine what will result in Spaine from trying to use the force of law to prevent an independence referendum from taking place.

As for the so-called “English question” on UK devolution, logic suggests that the only solution with long-term viability will be the creation of one or more separate English legislatures with powers comparable to those which the Scottish parliament will ultimately have.

The logic is that the UK has a long track record as a stable and democratic society, and the stability of a democratic society is threatened if the majority of the people come to believe that they are being treated unfairly. (The UK is a democratic society; therefore, the UK’s long-term stability would be threatened if the majority of the people came to believe they were being treated unfairly. At the same time, the UK is also a stable society; therefore, the UK is likely to do what it necessary to prevent its stability from being threatened.)

Spain does not have as long a track record for stability and democracy as the UK. But, hopefully, Spain will muddle through as well.

Posted by Bob9999 | Report as abusive

Thanks for the article. Just two little points. Arturo Mas? Spanishizing names was one of the systematic methods of Franco’s fascist regime to try and dilute the Catalan identity. Second, Franco died on November 20 (not October).

Posted by Nooneelse | Report as abusive

It is untrue that the catalan region is lacking in autonomy, in fact it is called “autonomous community of Cataluña”! Over 35 years the central government has been granting up to 189 devolutions, including health, education, its own police, its own representative Parliament with 135 members. Some would say that Scotland would dream of having the autonomous level of Cataluña. Under this independence trend, what lies is the attempt to cover up for the Catalan oligarchy and its obvious cases of corruption, since one of the powers not transferred is justice.

Posted by Manuel22 | Report as abusive

why should ‘spain’ celebrate what the author himself admits is not the polity the majority of Catalans want? (what’s catalan for schadenfreude?)

castalunya is not weighed down by the same vested interests as those influencing scotland – several layers of bogus but well paid ‘government’ and its hangers on, ‘white settlers’ from england spongeing free health and social care and the biggest concentration of professional parasites outside london operating their unique form of tax farm

the result should be interesting and could encourage others who wish to stand on their own three feet to face the real world

Posted by ed_martin | Report as abusive

Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Denmark, Luxembourg, Belgium, Monaco. All point the way to why smaller states are not only better for their citizens but for the world at large. I don’t blame the Catalans.

Posted by EyeForget | Report as abusive

“‘white settlers’ from england spongeing free health and social care”

That is not correct, to gain access to Spain’s Social Security system is as a permanent resident and paying into it, either as self-employed or a contracted employee.
Access to the state health system is emergency access via an EHIC or an S1, where you are retired and receiving a state pension, live permanently in Spain and have elected to transfer from the British Health System to the Spanish Health system. The UK Government then pays the Spanish Government a fixed amount and you are no longer in the UK Healthcare.
There is no sponging

Posted by richarda49 | Report as abusive

“In the end, the existing state authorities have the responsibility to find new ways to preserve unity.” Really? This despite the fact that a majority of Catalans (perhaps an overwhelming majority of Catalans) don’t want to be a part of that unity? It seems that Madrid has no interest in what Catalans actually want, only what they see as their sworn duty to oppose any bid by the Catalans for their freedom. Small is beautiful.

Posted by StevenPiper | Report as abusive