Brexit has not exactly been a walk in the park for Spain. Affecting the visas of ex-pat communities, slowing down foreign direct investment, and the confusing status of Gibraltar, are just a segment of the negative effects that Britain’s exit from the EU has had on the Iberian Peninsula. However, among turbulent calls for Catalan independence and hopes for a less ‘explosive’ situation than ETA actions and the fight for Basque independence, both independista Catalans and anti-independista Spaniards have found ways in which Brexit can support their campaign.
Brexit has landed the UK in an evident mess. Why would Catalonia ever want to go through independence when they have witnessed how difficult it can be? Catalans, however, are known for their strong spirit and tenacity, so even if Britain’s exit wasn’t the smoothest, nor the best-negotiated, many Catalans believe that they could learn from its mistakes.
Independent regions and the EU
The EU prides itself on a selective process of joining – it ‘does not happen overnight’. As many Britons who hope to rejoin have learnt, becoming a member state of the EU is a challenge: first, meeting all membership requirements, recognised as the ‘Copenhagen criteria’, and then submitting applications to the Council, which often go through extensive negotiations. Perhaps the largest hurdle is that every member state must agree for another nation to join. This involves each one of the 27 different countries voting “yes”.
Separatist regions of current EU member states are included in this. For instance, if Scotland were to devolve completely and break away from Britain, it would have to apply to rejoin the EU.
Lessons from Scotland
The reality of this is complicated. Although Scotland’s government website says that they are the only country to have been ‘take[n] out of the EU and its single market against its will’, Scotland voted to remain part of the United Kingdom in September 2014. Therefore, in the 2016 Brexit referendum, just like England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, Scotland too was subject to the result of the voting. So, even though 62% of Scots voted to remain in the EU and every single one of its councils was a Remain majority, Scotland still did leave the EU.
Nonetheless, the Scottish independence referendum was a close call, with 55.3% voting to be part of the UK, and 44.7% wanting to be an independent state. This was what caused so much Scottish controversy with Brexit: Scotland was very divided on even being part of Britain in the first place.
At the time of the 2014 referendum, Scotland’s best bet was arguably for it to remain part of the UK, given that the UK was part of the EU. Had Scotland left the United Kingdom, they would no longer have been part of the EU, and thus would have had to apply to rejoin. And this is where the separatist region of Catalonia comes in.
Brexit as a Spanish lever
In common with Scotland, Catalonia has long fought for its independence, with years of social unrest, protests, referendums, and riots. The largest flare-up was when an independence referendum was carried out in 2017: 90% voted in favour of Catalonia becoming an independent state. However, the Spanish government deemed this referendum illegal, since they claim that Spain is constitutionally a unified State, with no space for separatism. The Spanish police force were sent to block the referendum, resulting in immense and unnecessarily violent riots.
Spain is still desperate for Catalonia to remain part of the country, mainly since its economy is suffering. Wealthy Catalonia has a booming economy, a prosperous tourism sector, and Barcelona as its hub.
And so it would seem that Spain would have prevented Scotland from re-joining the EU, as a lesson to its Catalan counterpart that leaving Spain would almost guarantee an exile from the EU. And what could more effectively deter the Catalans from leaving Spain?
Brexit as a Catalan lever
Many Catalans are pro-EU. The former regional president of Catalonia, Carles Puigdemont, had tactically hoped that the 2017 referendum would ensure that Catalonia would be on its way to independence shortly after Britain. The Brexit negotiations proving to be so difficult, he then calculated that the EU might decide not to threaten an independent Catalonia with expulsion from the EU. Neither of these things happened.
However, this hasn’t stopped the independista Catalans from seeing similarities between Brexit and the fight for Catalan independence, and using this as political persuasion. They say that Britain leaving the EU is similar to them wanting to leave Spain. If Britain could become independent, why can’t Catalonia? According to M, a resident of Badalona, Catalonia, ‘it is the referendum that is paramount’.
Who will win?
Despite their obvious harnessing of Brexit as a political lever, both the Catalan and Madrid governments are trying to keep the peace and offer a solution which doesn’t become violent.
But as time passes, the Brexit referendum subsides further into the past, and the chance to use it as a political tool disappears ever further into the distance. If either Spaniards or Catalans are to truly grasp the UK’s Brexit experiment as a political lever, they need to do so now, and fight until they are victorious.