Catalonia goes to the polls on Sunday (September 27) to elect a new regional parliament. That’s all it means, says Mariano Rajoy, Spain’s centralist premier. Pero no, shout the four parties in the Junts pel Si (Together for Yes) coalition, it’s a vote in principle for or against independence. This vote takes place just over a year after Scots voted No to independence and Yes to the 300-year-old UK in an historic referendum. Scotland’s experience has plenty of lessons – most of them bitter – for the more populous, more economically weighty Catalunya.
The first is, indeed, straight out of the Scottish 2014 playbook. In the Scottish referendum the No campaign was dubbed Project Fear because it avoided any real enthusiasm for the Union and, instead, stressed the negatives that would flow from independence: expulsion from the currency union (Sterling) and from the EU, departure over the border of numerous firms, even greater fiscal austerity as oil prices collapse, the loss of tens of thousands of jobs, rising poverty. Even though Alex Salmond, Scottish National Party (SNP) leader, insisted the Pound would remain – as would the membership of EU, Nato and the Commonwealth and the Queen as head of state.
It worked, especially the currency issue – and not just among older voters. Madrid has stolen the UK pro-union Better Together campaign’s clothes: the central bank governor says Catalonia would be ejected from the euro and EU if it declared independence and its citizens’ bank accounts would become corralitos (frozen, as In Argentina); the Spanish supreme court and central government have declared any Scottish-style referendum unconstitutional. The Spanish soccer league, La Liga, has even told Barcelona it would be thrown out – an OTT threat aimed no doubt at Pep Guardiola, the team’s ex-coach (now with Bayern), who’s standing on the pro-independence list.
If anything, Madrid’s estrategia del miedo (strategy of fear) is even more extreme than that of London, the City and their political backers in the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties last year. Artur Mas, Catalonian president, has called it “pure poison” and “revenge, an act of rage”. So far, it isn’t working: up to 2m Catalans or more than a quarter of the 7.5m population took to the streets of their capital on national day (September 11) to support independence. The four parties in the Yes coalition are given a narrow lead in polls but that could easily evaporate by Sunday. Negative campaigning in favour of the status quo (stability, security) often works in the short term
Another tough lesson from Scotland, however, is that this election will not be the end of the story. Far from it. Eight months after the referendum there, the SNP took 56 out of 59 Westminster seats in the UK general election and, on current form, will be swept back to office in Holyrood (seat of threw Scottish parliament) in May 2016 with an even bigger majority than now. The clamour for a second plebiscite (#indyref2) sooner than later grows louder even though Nicola Sturgeon, Salmond’s more cautious, tactical successor, isn’t listening that closely. Her party – via Alyn Smith MEP – is telling Madrid to heed Sunday’s result and stop blocking any referendum within, say, 18 months; otherwise, its actions would be “simply anti-democratic, anti-European and potentially explosive.” After all, David Cameron did not stand in the way of the 2014 referendum.
There is even more at stake for Spain in Catalonia than for the UK in Scotland. Its population (7.5m) is half as big again as that of the Scots (5m). Its share of Spanish GDP is almost a fifth rather than just 8% and its economy more balanced, with no over-reliance on oil. President Mas is threatening to refuse to accept Catalonia’s share of Spanish sovereign debt. Spain could put at risk its hard-won economic recovery if Madrid provoked a fiscal as well as a constitutional crisis. And Catalan memories of Francoista fascism are fresher than Scottish thoughts of Flodden.
One shared lesson of recent European politics is that the old ways simply don’t work: voters are increasingly alienated and don’t trust venerable institutions. In the UK the English regions are demanding more devolution post-referendum while the federalist movement has had a new lease of life. The centralizing Castilian-dominated authorities in Madrid should take note: Scotland’s Project Fear has left just bitter division among its supporters while the pro-independence Project Hope is buoyant; the demand for regional autonomy is bound to grow all over Europe; the movement of history is not on their side.