SIM Report: Western Europe, Issue 6

WESTERN EUROPE: Independence movements in Scotland and Catalonia gather momentum amid COVID-19 crisis

A consequence of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is the resurgence of independence movements in Europe. The trajectory for separatist movements appears to be heading towards more confrontation with central governments, with possible increases in autonomy to be seen.

In the aftermath of the first COVID-19 wave, the issue of independence resurfaced in Spain and the UK. Historical divisions were reinforced during the first stages of the crisis, mainly due to the uneven regional impact of the pandemic. As such, the political consequences arising from the pandemic are only now beginning to materialise across Europe. With nationalist sentiment on the rise, it is unsurprising that pro-independence movements and parties are seeking to strengthen their positions ahead of key electoral challenges next year.

Support for independence rises in Scotland

The election of a Labour government under Prime Minister Tony Blair in 1997 led to the creation of devolved institutions in Scotland. Since then, the Scottish parliament has exerted considerable legislative powers over areas such as education and healthcare. This helps explain how Scotland was able to adopt a considerably different approach to COVID-19 than the UK government. The ruling SNP party undertook a much more cautious and measured stance from the onset of the crisis. This contrasted highly with the UK government, which before adopting a lockdown, resisted imposing wide-ranging restrictions that would curtail civil liberties.  

A stronger and more confident approach to COVID-19 resulted in increasing support for Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP. Three other factors of comparable importance help explain this surge: Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who is a popular figure nationally, is highly divisive in Scotland. This is in part due to the crucial role he played in the 2016 Brexit referendum. Secondly, the ruling Conservative Party has historically struggled to gain support in Scotland, though under Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, it enjoyed increased levels of support. Davidson announced her resignation in August 2019 citing Brexit as one of the main reasons behind the decision. Finally, the charismatic leadership of Sturgeon during a time of crisis was a testament to many that Scotland can govern itself effectively. In a way, Sturgeon rose above the debate about independence and kept the SNP singularly focused on Scotland’s pandemic response. According to an opinion poll carried out by Survation and released on 11 September, 53 per cent of people in Scotland would support independence if a vote were to be held. In September 2014, a majority of voters in Scotland voted to maintain the union between Scotland and the UK. Recent opinion polls suggest that pro-European voters who are strongly opposed to Brexit, and who voted for the union in 2014, are shifting to other side.

 The current context sets the scene for elections to be held in May 2021, which will determine the composition of Holyrood, the seat of Scotland’s parliament. If the SNP and the pro-independence Greens win over half the seats, this will give Sturgeon a strong mandate to demand a new referendum from London.

Catalan independence movement at a crossroads

With one of the largest number of COVID-19 cases since the crisis began, Spain is among the world’s most-affected countries. In its response to rapidly increasing numbers, the government of Pedro Sánchez re-centralised health and policing powers to Madrid in order to better coordinate its response. This approach, however, carried considerable risks as Catalan separatists accused the Spanish government of handling the crisis poorly. The Catalan leader Quim Torra called for a stricter lockdown, which was in line with the narrative that an independent Catalonia would have been better able to react. As opposed to the more uncompromising Junts per Catalunya (JxCat) party, the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) adopted a more conciliatory tone and supported Madrid on a number of occasions in extending the state of emergency. JxCat favours more direct confrontation with Madrid, while the ERC has focused on prioritising dialogue with the Spanish government. Recent opinion polls reflect where the public in Catalonia stands on the differing approaches; JxCat has won support, while the ERC is losing backing.

In September, the Spanish Supreme Court barred Torra from holding office for 18 months, upholding an earlier ruling which found him guilty of disobedience after he displayed pro-independence symbols on public buildings during the 2019 general election campaign. Torra hinted that early elections for the Catalan parliament were almost certainly going to take place next year.

Pro-Catalan independence parties will likely win a majority in the regional parliament if a snap poll is held. But a lack of unity across different parties sharing the same overarching aim will likely undermine their goals. Another challenge to pressuring Madrid into accepting a referendum, is the fact that pro-independence parties are unable to organise large rallies across Catalonia – a trademark of the separatist movement – due to COVID-19 restrictions. Declining turnouts and a focus on dealing with the economic fallout of the pandemic means organisers may have to examine other tactics as a way of streamlining their demands.

Independence will remain elevated in the political agenda

In the likely event that pro-independence parties in Scotland and Catalonia gain majorities in their respective legislatures after elections set for next year, then we can expect calls for greater autonomy to grow. There will be less room for compromise, while referendums are unlikely to be granted in either case, at least over the next few years. Indeed, apart from appeasing independence elements in both countries, and perhaps pacifying the more militant aspects of the movement in Catalonia, there is little political benefit to be gained. In Spain, the prospect of granting a referendum to Catalonia is almost unthinkable for most parties in parliament. For the UK, Prime Minister Boris Johnson will rely on the fact that a referendum was held not that long ago; preoccupation with Brexit and the enduring consequences of COVID-19 will likely be considered key priorities instead. In both cases, the issue of independence will remain elevated in the political agenda and probably gain importance well after the health crisis subsides.

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