Last week’s agreement in the Catalan parliament to hold a referendum on independence may prove to be a bit of a game changer. While there is still a long way to go before a referendum can be held in Catalunya, the fact that a clear majority of MPs in the parliament, coming from five different parties -Liberals, Christian Democrats, Greens, Left Republicans and Popular Unity – is a fact that cannot be dismissed out of hand. The Madrid government and its socialist allies will huff and puff and do everything they can to stop the referendum, but the main interest from a Scottish perspective is how will the EU respond?
The first signs are not promising. Mr Van Rompuy, President of the European Council has already spoken out against Catalan independence, with the usual scaremongering about being thrown out of the EU. However others in the vast edifice that is the EU may find it harder to stick to this line. As long as it was just Scotland, the implications of independence from within the EU could be just about ignored or kicked down the road with vague threats in the form of vague generalities. However now there is the realistic prospect of two new independent states emerging democratically from within the EU. Not so easy to dismiss out of hand. Particularly when Catalunya is such a significant part of the EU. Sharing a border with both France and Spain and the main transit route between these two countries, the prospect of a Catalunya outwith the EU must send shivers down the spine of the political and business world in not just France but Italy and Germany. Catalunya is just too rich and too important to be conveniently ignored.
Or bullied, which is what the Spanish government would like to do and what the Van Rompuys of the EU would no doubt like to do as well. But I very much doubt if this tactic will go down well in the rest of the EU. To simply deny the Catalans the right to self-determination would in all likelihood bring down the whole EU project. The EU cannot preach the virtues and values of democracy to Ukrainians and Russians and then deny it to their own citizens. The EU has enough credibility problems as it is, without adding to them by taking a stance against democracy in Catalunya.
The import of all this is that we may soon see the first signs of a break in the EU’s position of “no comment”, but nudge nudge, wink wink, we don’t want independence from within. The demand for clarity from not just Scotland, but from Catalunya will only grow stronger and stronger. Already some Commissioners have spoken out of turn and been forced to recant. But more and more are likely to break ranks. Sooner or later the EU will have to face up to this prospect of new states emerging from within. There are two other groups within the EU which might prove willing to open up this issue to genuine discussion. The first is the EU parliament, which could pressure the Commission into preparing a full legal position. The other is the Liberal group in the EU, or to give them their Sunday name, the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe(ALDE). They are the third largest political group in the EU parliament and still carry some weight. Members of this group are also to be found in the Commission and in the governments of member states. The UK LibDems and the Catalan Liberals are both member parties in this Alliance. As one is against Scottish independence, while the other is leading the campaign for Catalan independence, it may be difficult for ALDE to remain silent for much longer.
Nothing is likely to happen soon, the EU does not do soon very well. But pressure on the EU institutions will only grow and grow as a result of the Catalan decision to hold a referendum in the same year as Scotland. For a Catalan view on this the Catalan magazine Ara has published a supplement on the issues surrounding their referendum – The Moment of Truth. It is mainly in catalan, but has the key points translated into Spanish and English. You can read it here. For a good summary of how it will not just be Scotland or Catalunya that will be affected by a Yes vote, Brandon Malone, a member of the Law Society of Scotland’s Constitutional Law Sub-committee, expresses his personal view here.