Article published at EU Observer, 22nd March 2017
CAMBRIDGE, 22. MAR, 15:56
In recent months, the Catalan autonomous government has taken unprecedented political steps towards independence from Spain, angering Madrid and putting EU leaders on edge.
Meanwhile, the Scottish government has doubled down on its bet for independence by calling for a new referendum in 2018.
Together, Scotland and Catalonia have spun a complicated web of juxtaposed geopolitical interests, running in parallel to the already complex Brexit negotiations.
Catalonia, located in the north-east of Spain, is one of the richest regions in Europe. Its capital, Barcelona, is a vibrant global metropolis, ranking among Europe’s top 10 tourist destinations.
The region has always asserted itself as being distinct from the rest of Spain.
In the last five years, a pro-independence movement has gained a parliamentary majority, which is determined to secede from Spain to form an independent Catalan state. In order to do so, it has unilaterally called a binding referendum, which is to take place before the end of the year.
Until recently, the geopolitical leverage of Catalonia has been weak: a strong European Union, with Spain as one of its most reliable members, has treated the independence movement with cold indifference, and sometimes with overt rejection.
For example, during a recent official visit to Spain, Antonio Tajani, the president of the European Parliament, said: “Those who act against the Spanish Constitution are also acting against the European order”.
Then came Crimea, Brexit, Turkey, Trump and populist electoral insurgencies in the Netherlands, France and Germany. All of a sudden, the future of the European Union seemed much less certain. For the first time, Catalonia’s unofficial diplomacy was given a good set of cards to play.
The success of anti-globalisation movements, which foresee a revival of nation state ideologies, caught politicians in Barcelona off guard.
The Catalan pro-independence movement, similar to the one in Scotland, is largely pro-European. Driven by this tradition, the large Catalan political parties have held onto their pro-European views, keeping in line with the European centrist view of further strengthening the EU institutions.
Madrid’s reaction has been to double down on its anti-secessionist position. The Spanish government lead by Mariano Rajoy, which has the support of the two biggest parties, has insisted on blocking any kind of referendum on Catalan independence.
On March 13th, the Superior Court of Justice of Catalonia sentenced the former Catalan president, Artur Mas, to a ban from holding public office for two years.
President of the Catalan National Assembly Carme Forcadell and several former members of the government are also facing trial for organising a non-binding consultation on independence on the 9th of November of 2014, and for allowing a sovereignty vote in the Catalan parliament without Madrid’s permission.
The level of distrust between Madrid and Barcelona is rising rapidly.
After the approval of the Catalan budget (which solidified the pro-independence majority in power, with the support of the Eurosceptic far-left), Madrid terminated “Operación Dialogo”, a central government operation aimed at improving relations with Barcelona.
In response, the Catalan parliament passed a motion in March allowing for the possibility of an immediate vote on independence in the Catalan parliament, which intended to give the Spanish government less time to prepare for such a vote and impede any legal challenges against it.
Catalan government officials are increasingly worried that Madrid is unwilling to compromise and might be playing a radical end game.
This would mean intervening in Catalan institutions, overtaking the educational and police system, and gradually trying to strengthen Spanish nationalism in the region.
Leaked discussions between the former chief of the anti-fraud office in Catalonia and the former interior minister in Spain appeared to confirm these suspicions.
The first was recorded saying that they will “crush the Catalan health system”, and the latter was caught discussing ways to politically destroy their political opponents in Barcelona.
Meanwhile, Catalonia has been expanding its scope in search of foreign allies, and finding them in unexpected places.
It has long been rumoured that Catalonia and Israel have been keeping friendly diplomatic contacts. These contacts are grounded in Israel’s need for Mediterranean allies, and in the currently lukewarm Israeli-Spanish relations, exemplified by the Spanish vote in the recent UN resolution against Israeli settlements.
For Russia, Catalan independence is in line with its broader geopolitical strategy.
Seeing that a victory for Marine Le Pen in the French elections this April is now less likely – after François Fillon’s drop in the polls – Russian president Vladimir Putin might be looking for other ways to destabilise European unity, while seeking to increase support among Europeans for Russia’s foreign policy.
There are signs that he has considered Catalonia as a suitable vessel for this: In September of 2016, rumours (soon debunked) were spread on Russian news sites claiming that the Catalan parliament had recognised Crimea as an independent state.
In the United Kingdom, both Westminster and Edinburgh are watching the developments in Catalonia carefully.
Theresa May’s government has an interest in weakening the European negotiating position, which is united around securing a post-Brexit deal that makes Britain worse off.
Scotland is playing its hand and going all in: Nicola Sturgeon’s decision to call for a new referendum on Scottish independence in 2018 has put relations between Edinburgh and Westminster on the edge of a knife.
The spat between the Spanish state and the Catalan regional government is likely to make the situation even more complicated.
Parliament appears to recognise the potential seriousness of the issue and, in early March, set up an All-Party Parliamentary Group on Catalonia. Interestingly, it was SNP MP George Kerevan who took the initiative for the creation of this group.
Brexit, SNP and Catalan
The Catalonian situation has put the upcoming Brexit negotiations in a tough spot: on one hand there is a strong temptation to use a possible support for a unilateral Scottish independence as a Brexit negotiation card. On the other hand, Europe knows that if it were to accept a fast track for Scottish EU membership, Catalonia would be entitled to a similar treatment.
If denied this, Catalonia could seek economic and political support from the UK, and the UK could offer it, if only to destabilise the EU in retaliation for its refusal to heed its Brexit demands.
Spain, aware of its own difficult position, stated almost immediately after Sturgeon’s announcement that it would respect the results of a new Scottish referendum, but also made it its official doctrine to not allow Scotland to become an EU member state.
In brief, all actors involved have a great deal to lose, and only a few have something to gain.
The current global geopolitical situation is not exactly stable.
Brexit, Trump, the refugee crisis and the emergence of far-right parties throughout Europe have put the future of the European Union in jeopardy. This, ironically, has created a situation where Catalonia is closer than ever to its long sought-after independence but, at the same time, it should restrain itself from acquiring it.
As the situation currently stands, a break away from Spain would serve the interests of those bent on destabilising an already weakened Europe. This is not what Catalonia (or Spain, or Europe for that matter) needs.
But the pro-European, centrist Catalan coalition risks being driven into a corner where it will find itself without a viable alternative.
Both Spain and the EU cannot keep turning a blind eye to the problem. It is also their responsibility to provide an acceptable exit from this situation, either by allowing a referendum, or by reaching a multilateral political agreement with Catalonia.
Not doing so would put Europe’s stability even more at risk, and at the worst possible time.
Adrià Salvador Palau is a PhD-student at the Department of Engineering at the University of Cambridge. He is from Barcelona and has previously published on Catalan and Spanish politics.
Jon Roozenbeek is a PhD-student at the Department of Slavonic Studies at the University of Cambridge. He previously worked as a journalist and editor in the Netherlands, and now studies Ukraine’s post-conflict media landscape and online social movements.