The Case for Catalan and Scottish Secession Builds
By Mark Fleming-Williams
Separatist movements continue to rumble across Europe. The separatist urge extends in varying degrees to parts of Italy, Belgium, France, Romania and — most seriously at the moment — to Spain and the United Kingdom. In Spain, Catalonia this week proceeded with a "solemn proclamation" beginning the independence process, a move the Spanish Constitutional Court will probably block. Meanwhile in the United Kingdom, a year after 55 percent of Scots voted to remain a part of the union, polls are showing movement toward a "yes" vote on secession were a referendum held today, and Westminster is passing laws likely to exacerbate internal divisions.
Why Scotland and Catalonia currently display such strong secessionist tendencies has as much to do with past grievances as it does with a present confluence of factors.
The Consequences of Secession
Understanding the current movements in Catalonia and Scotland requires first understanding what it means for a region to become its own state. Geopolitics is the study of the strategies undertaken by groupings of people. These strategies are the sum of goals tempered by constraints; the strategy ultimately adopted is the most effective one available. By deciding to secede, a region or state is making the collective judgment that the needs of its populace will be better served outside its host nation rather than by remaining part of the larger whole. For this to be true, the many drawbacks of going it alone must be outweighed.
Frequently, the process of secession itself proves costly because the host country sees losing a region as weakening the whole, and so tries to prevent it (though examples of peaceful splits exist). The results can be quite bloody, as the secession of East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, showed in 1971. And Biafra's attempted secession from Nigeria in 1967 demonstrates that sometimes blood can be shed without the ultimate payoff of independence.
The drawbacks of a successful secession are also frequently the direct result of a diminution in size. As a rule of thumb, the larger the state, the more influence it has on the global stage. For example, it is hard to imagine a statesman from an independent Georgia rivaling the power wielded by another Georgian, Josef Stalin, when he was leader of the entire Soviet Union. A small country is also much more vulnerable to being buffeted by external forces, be it harmful flows of capital in and out of its currency or perhaps being bullied by a large trading partner to follow its preferred policies. Moreover, a small state may be more likely to experience aggression from powers other than the one from which it seceded — powers that might not have attacked it when it was part of the host state. Cyprus discovered this in 1974 when Turkey invaded it 14 years after Cyprus split from the United Kingdom.
Secession also means the creation of a new border with the former host country, which usually is the secessionist region's main trading partner. Studies have shown that borders greatly inhibit trade. There are also costs to creating the public sector institutions previously coordinated by the national capital.
On the plus side, a smaller unit can be more nimble in global affairs, making it possible to avoid major entanglements by being less visible. Moreover, larger states tend to have richer and poorer regions, with the former subsidizing the latter. A richer region that splits off may thus escape the burden of supporting poorer regions. Finally, a smaller region will tend to be more culturally homogenous than its larger parent, leading to a stronger sense of belonging among its population. Indeed, that may be a main driver for its desire to break away, and it often is the most powerful tool secessionist politicians looking for support have.
In this way, the case for secession becomes like a balance sheet, with forces favoring independence being weighed against forces for continued union. When the force for union outweighs that for separation, the status quo persists, but as the balance tips the other way there is a move toward secession.
The Scottish and Catalan Cases
The roots of Scottish separatism lie in geography. After the Romans invaded Britain in A.D. 43, they swiftly colonized the fertile plains of England and militarized the mountainous territories of Wales and northern England. But they ultimately decided that following suit in the highlands of Scotland was beyond their capabilities, and so they opted to erect a wall to keep the wild Scottish tribes out of their territory. Thus Scotland (along with Ireland) developed at some remove from the London-dominated heartland of the British Isles.
Compared to the United Kingdom, Spain is much more geographically decentralized. It is riven by mountains and valleys and has a dearth of navigable rivers, inhibiting intra-peninsular communication. This means the center has always struggled to impose itself on the periphery.
The two regions do a have a major historical commonality: Neither Scotland nor Aragon (at the time a sort of Greater Catalonia) was conquered by England or Castile; in fact, each freely chose to form part of a greater whole.
In 1707, Scotland, never a rich country, had recently bankrupted itself with a disastrous attempt at colonizing Panama. By uniting with England it saw an opportunity to gain access to that country's burgeoning international empire. (The union was made easier by the fact that an English monarch had died childless leaving a Scot king of both countries a century before.)
For its part, in 1492, Aragon — which had just suffered a ruinous civil war — had been watching its Castilian neighbor gradually absorb the rest of the peninsula. Castile's combined 5 million people now dwarfed Aragon's million. Joining its larger neighbor solved several problems for Aragon. For one, it helped deal with the French king, who was encroaching over the Pyrenees. (Catalonia owed its birth to a previous encroachment from the north, when the French sought to repel the encroaching Moors back down the Iberian Peninsula in the early 9th century; the distinctive Catalan tongue, which anchors the region's identity, emerged as a result of these Franco-Iberian roots.) It also brought the Mediterranean-facing Aragon closer to having a window on the Atlantic Ocean, which was where the locus of world trade was headed at that time. And it gave Aragon the opportunity of taking control of the whole: The Aragonese king wound up ruling the conjoined states as regent until 1515.
Over the centuries that followed, Scotland found itself gaining significantly from its union with England, with Glasgow and Dundee becoming important manufacturing hubs in the industrialized British Empire.
Catalonia, however, found itself in a tug of war with Madrid. The joining of Castile and Aragon to an extent was a union of equals, and Aragon was thus allowed to keep many of its special rights, privileges and autonomies. But as New World gold poured into Madrid and Seville, the Castilian center became more powerful compared to the Catalan periphery and began to encroach on these privileges in an attempt to centralize power — quieting Catalan objections with military force. The waning of the Spanish Empire, however, changed this balance: As one of the few Spanish regions to industrialize, Catalonia found itself in a position to assert itself once more. During the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39, Madrid temporarily reversed this trend of growing Catalan assertiveness, but it re-emerged after Franco's death in 1975.
Today in both Scotland and Catalonia, the balance recording the costs and benefits of secession versus union is shifting in favor of secession. The United Kingdom is now a shadow of its imperial self, with the trade network upon which Scottish cities once thrived having shriveled to a trickle. Worse, the British economy more and more appears geared toward serving the financial services sector based out of London, allowing the heartland to draw most of the capital and ambitious university graduates. Finally, the discovery of oil off the Scottish coast in 1969 holds the promise of a basis for independent Scottish wealth.
Meanwhile, Spain has been struggling with unemployment rates of more than 20 percent for four years and has public debt levels of 98 percent of GDP. This has caused a wave of dissatisfaction across the country. Catalonia, which pays more into national coffers than it receives back, feels that it is subsidizing the poorer southern parts of the country, prompting many Catalans to feel they would be better off in an independent Catalonia. Such sentiments were exacerbated when the Spanish Constitutional Court rejected a 2006 Catalan proposal for more autonomy.
The Bigger Picture
Stepping back from the specifics of Scottish and Catalan separatism reveals that many of the forces that used to keep unruly regions at bay have been fading.
The early years of the 20th century saw a turning point in this regard, with global geopolitical implications. The world emerged from the horrors of World War I with an antipathy toward imperialism; World War II amplified this sentiment. Former U.S. President Woodrow Wilson's 14-point program for world peace of 1918 was a clarion call for self-determination. This plus the global disapproval experienced by countries such as the United Kingdom and France on the occasions in the 20th century when they tried to hold their empires together by force gave rise to a global climate in which it is very hard for a Western country to impose its will on a group of determined secessionists. This has diminished some of the risks of a possible independence push, which often used to involve the separatists being put down forcefully by the center.
But another, more specific force also has been tipping the scales toward secession, one that surrounds both the United Kingdom and Spain, not to mention northern Italy, Flanders and the other separatist states in Europe: namely, the European Union itself. This is because by its very existence, the European Union solves many of the small-country problems potential secessionists face.
By becoming an EU member, a small nation can retain its global influence even after it has separated from its host country. Indeed, a small nation has every chance of placing one of its countrymen at the top of the entire structure, as Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker of Luxembourg can attest. Trade fears are somewhat assuaged by automatic membership in the single market, and if the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment negotiations succeed, access to the U.S. market would be assured as well. Meanwhile, adoption of the euro solves potential currency problems (though it might also bring some new ones of its own). And from a military perspective, it is hard to imagine scenarios such as Turkey invading Cyprus had the latter been an EU member at the time. Thus, the development of the European Union has also been gradually improving the case for secession.
Unfortunately for potential secessionists, however, there are complications to this rather rosy looking picture. The first is that the current EU membership is very anti-separatist, largely because many members must cope with their own problem regions. Seceding states could thus find themselves blackballed from EU membership. A tiny independent state in the middle of Europe but not part of the union would find life very lonely indeed; Kosovo's current existence at the center of the Balkans offers a cautionary tale. It is hard to imagine such a state of affairs being allowed to persist in a country surrounded by the European Union, but the possibility still gives secessionists pause.
The second danger is that the European Union itself might not exist in perpetuity. Since 2008, the union has been in crisis. The European Council meeting in December, which will include discussions on the future of the union, looks set to be a fraught affair, with wide gaps between the French and German positions. Germany has spent much of the year protecting itself from a possible unraveling, first refusing to mutualize the risks in the European Central Bank's bond-buying policy and now resisting calls to pool deposit insurance for eurozone banks. Meanwhile, the United Kingdom has been putting its human rights concerns to one side and has been aggressively courting China, no doubt with an eye on the possibility of leaving the European Union in the coming referendum. Thus, a newly independent state could find itself filling out application forms for a European Union that no longer exists.
As last year's referendum in Scotland (45 percent "yes") and September's Catalan election (48 percent for pro-separatist parties) showed, the ledger has not yet tipped in favor of secession, but the prevailing currents are moving that way. As long as these currents persist and barriers continue to be removed and as long as drawbacks to small statehood continue to be eroded and national centers continue to weaken their hold over their peripheries, separatism will surely continue to spread.
The Case for Catalan and Scottish Secession Builds is republished with permission of Stratfor.