Catalonia Region and Scotland – where comparisons begin and end

Adrian Elliot, of Grayling Spain’s Public Affairs team, compares the case for independence in Scotland and the Region of Catalonia.

Students of Comparative Politics will understand the complexity of analysing similar outcomes when they occur in countries or regions with differing political systems. In the case of Scotland and the Region of Catalonia, we have the fortune of being able to compare two cases, both of which are set in a European context and thus in liberal democracies that have – up to this point in time – transferred a considerable number of powers to the EU. Nevertheless, when observed in more detail, the similarities do not go much further than that.

Starting from a historical perspective, the United Kingdom was created as a union of two separate kingdoms, both of which continued to maintain their separate identities. While there are considerable historical reasons to justify a specific cultural and national identity for Catalonia, the boundaries of the modern day administrative region were set out as part of a nationwide process of devolution to 17 different ‘autonomous communities’, all of which constitutionally form part of the modern day Spanish state. Nevertheless, Spain Autonomous Communities do not share a uniform level of autonomy. To all intents and purposes, apart from Defence, Foreign Affairs and some elements of taxation, Catalonia is (as many other Autonomous Communities in Spain such as Basque Region, Navarra, etc) a self-governing territory enjoying considerably more autonomy and for more time than Scotland has ever held in recent times.

Then there are the economic differences. Population wise Scotland in the 2001 census accounted for just 8.4% of the UK population and represents less than 7% of UK GDP.   Catalonia’s share of the overall Spanish population is around about twice that, and the region accounts for around 20% of the Spanish economy, almost equalling the figure for the region of Madrid. Many of Spain’s leading banks and businesses are headquartered in Catalonia, and their success depends in a great part on their ability to do business in the rest of Spain. In this sense, it is important to underline that the Region of Catalonia accounts for a third of state aid, receiving €46.4 billion in the last four years.

Next, there are constitutional issues. Britain does not have a written constitution, and David Cameron was free to ask Parliament to approve a referendum on independence for Scotland. Whereas Spain has a very clearly worded constitution which, unless modified, would require all Spanish citizens to have an equal vote in any referendum relating to a possible separation from Spain of any one of the country’s regions. Spain’s constitution was approved in 1978 in a referendum with the support of 88.5% of the country’s population, a figure that exceeded 90% in the case of the provinces that today constitute the autonomous region of Catalonia.

Another factor that is import to note is linguistic. The Catalan language clearly differentiates Catalonia from the rest of Spain, however ironically it has actually proved to be in many ways an asset for the region within Spain. As a ‘co-official’ language in Spain, Catalonia provides bilingual education in Spanish and Catalan and knowledge of Catalan is essential for a large number of civil service jobs both within and outside Catalonia. A teacher in Madrid who does not speak Catalan would not be able to get a teaching job in Catalonia whereas a Catalan teacher, being bilingual, could apply for a similar position in any part of Spain. This is the Catalan version of the so-called ‘West Lothian question’ regarding the fact that Scottish MPs can vote in Westminster on matters that only affect England, whereas English MPs have no say on matters affecting Scotland. In Spain there is a clearer and more logical separation between central and regional government, however language continues to confer benefits asymmetrically.

Politically, there are a wide range of sentiments that have led nationalist politicians, and a large part of the Catalan population, to desire independence from Spain. In part thanks to their high level of autonomy, nationalist politicians have also had the opportunity over many years to influence education, public opinion and to reach a point at which they are threatening to unilaterally declare independence from Spain with or without a favourable referendum.

Meanwhile, the government in Madrid has focused on the issue of Catalonia almost entirely from a legal and constitutional perspective and would appear to have alienated a considerable part of Catalan public opinion due to their strong resistance to a negotiated solution.

Many would argue that it is time for there to be more ‘jaw jaw’ and for Madrid to make a greater effort to listen to the concerns of Catalan nationalists in order to settle the issue once and for all. However the asymmetric system of autonomy within Spain has meant that over more than 30 years, the Spanish regions have participated in a race for ever greater levels of self-government. So it is argued that any concessions to Catalonia would inevitably be followed by requests for more concessions from the Basque Region, Andalusia, Valencia, Galicia… some would ask where this would end, while others point out that it seems unfair for a devolved administration like Spain to be accused of excessive centralism when just across the border, France would never contemplate the possibility of devolving any power to the Bretons or, indeed, to the French Basque Country.

Clearly there are countless differences between the demands of Scotland and those of Catalonia, however the similarities ultimately boil down to one thing: political legitimacy in times of populism. Just as it has become the trend to blame the ‘elites’ for all a country’s problems in times of economic hardship and transformation, regional politicians are adept at blaming the central government, and at using this as a smokescreen to cover their own internal problems. Just as the British media and politicians laid the blame at the doors of Brussels and ended up with Brexit; the Scots, the Catalans and Basques can blame London, Madrid or Brussels for all manner of problems of varying origin. Political legitimacy has deteriorated on all levels, and governments of all colours need to work to re-establish the trust of their citizens. Once they have regained that trust, it will be harder to sow division among voters who, regardless of where they live, face more or less the same day to day challenges. The difficulty is in knowing where to begin.

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