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BREXIT

Why Spain plays a crucial role in whether UK stays together

William McDougall, Lecturer in Politics at Glasgow Caledonian University explains why the UK's future may well depend on Spain.

Why Spain plays a crucial role in whether UK stays together
Photo: AFP

Committed supporters of Scottish independence may be dusting down their 2014 memorabilia and rehearsing their arguments now that the Brexit vote has raised the prospect of another referendum north of the border. Yet despite much talk about the sovereign will of the Scottish people, the gift of holding a referendum belongs to Westminster. As Enoch Powell claimed, “power devolved is power retained”.

When deciding how to respond to a demand for another referendum from Scotland, the UK government need not just rely on theories. It has a real example with the Spanish state’s handling of the Catalan question.

In 2012, the main nationalist parties in Catalonia won a decisive majority of the vote in the regional elections. They supported holding a referendum on self-determination in 2014 but this was vetoed by Madrid.


Artur Mas. Photo: AFP

As a result, support for a referendum rose to 80% and backing for independence hardened, while the nationalists were threatened with prosecutions if they went ahead. They were reduced to holding the referendum as a symbolic non-binding vote (80% voted for independence, though those in favour appeared overrepresented – the split is usually nearer 50-50).

Even this informal vote led the Spanish authorities to accuse the organisers of breaches of electoral law and misusing public funds. The then president of Catalonia, Artur Mas, was threatened with a trial which could have resulted in a ten-year bar on holding electoral office and 12 months' imprisonment.

The two main nationalist parties next formed an alliance that called for an early election for September 2015. Running under the name Junts pel Sí (“Together for Yes”), the plan was to turn it into a plebiscite on independence and secede by 2017 if pro-independence parties won a majority.

In the end they won 53% of seats but only 48% of votes, and only then in combination with a smaller pro-independence party on the far left. There was some debate about whether an electoral or absolute majority was necessary to trigger secession. Nevertheless, the new Catalan government decided to push ahead.

Since then, its efforts have been delayed by the fact that new Catalan president Charles Puigdemont has ruled out secession during this term, as have the far left grouping. It looks as though the nationalists have lost momentum and a unilateral declaration of independence next year looks unlikely, though the longer-term picture is far from certain.

Westminster: weighing the options

But what lessons can the UK government take from all of this? It has good reason for refusing to grant the Scots another referendum. It may well have agreed to the last one assuming little risk of Scottish independence, and may not be so obliging in future.

A new prime minister will hardly want to start their tenure by losing part of the country. There may also be Westminster resistance to another Scottish referendum so soon after the last one, regardless of the circumstances.

Yet granting a referendum in 2014 set a precedent and demonstrating the same lack of flexibility as Madrid could easily backfire. Spain is testing to the limits the old claim of Irish nationalist Charles Stuart Parnell that no one can hold back the march of a nation. In the long term, Spain may even have made an independent Catalonia more likely.

On the other hand, the Spanish example does demonstrate that the state has considerable advantages in a constitutional dispute – not least having electoral law on its side. At the very least, a state can slow the process of statehood considerably.

In volatile times, a newly elected Conservative prime minister may decide that placing obstacles in the path of Scottish independence will convince enough risk-averse voters to think again. With the SNP accustomed – like their Catalan cousins – to behaving in a constitutionally legal manner, it is not entirely clear how they would react. The nationalists' best hope is to gain enough allies in the EU beforehand to make such a move extremely difficult.

Spanish interests

One handicap for Scotland is that Spain and the UK share an obvious interest in obstructing regions with ambitions to become states. Spain is already intervening as Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon holds meetings in Brussels to try and retain EU membership for Scotland.


Nicola Sturgeon meeting Martin Schulz. Photo: AFP

She is pushing a model similar to that of Denmark, an EU member whose Greenland and Faroe Islands territories are not in the EU. Spanish leader Mariano Rajoy is opposed to any equivalent scenario whereby Scotland and Northern Ireland remain in the EU while England and Wales moved outside. It is clearly not in Spain’s interest for the EU to be discussing a special deal with nationalists who favour independence.

In one sense it’s not entirely clear if this Spanish intervention is against UK interests, since it depends on what type of relationship with the EU the UK ends up negotiating. Should England and Wales end up outside the single market, it wouldn’t be workable for Scotland to be in the same state but with a customs border as a result of different policies on free movement. Either way, however, Spain’s intervention at this stage may have the perverse effect of making an indyref2 more likely.

On the other hand, Madrid could end up helping the British unionists by taking the line that Scotland would need to wait until after the UK has left the EU before it applies for membership. That could both reduce support for the referendum and reduce the nationalists' chances of winning in the event that it went ahead.

For these reasons, Spain both provides a lesson for Westminster in its treatment of Catalonia and is potentially its most important ally in heading off this second push for independence at the pass.

The Conversation

William McDougall, Lecturer in Politics, Glasgow Caledonian University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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BREXIT

Brexit: Brits in EU feel European and don’t want to return home

The majority of Britons who live in the EU, Norway, Iceland or Switzerland and are protected under the Brexit agreement feel European and intend to remain in Europe permanently, but many have concerns about travel problems, a new survey reveals.

Brexit: Brits in EU feel European and don't want to return home

The research also shows that problems exist and “travel is where most issues relating to the new status currently occur”. For instance, border officials are still stamping passports of UK citizens with residence rights under the EU UK withdrawal agreement, even though they shouldn’t.

“There is constant confusion around passport stamping. I was ‘stamped in’ to France on a short trip… but could not find anyway to be ‘stamped out’ again. I think I can only spend 90 days in other EU countries, but have no idea how anyone can check or enforce that – until someone decides to try. It’s a mess,” was one of the answers left in an open question.

“Every time I go through a Schengen border control, I need to provide both my passport and Aufenthaltstitel card [resident permit in Germany] and watch to check that they don’t stamp my passport. As I am currently travelling a lot that’s been 20-odd times this year…” another respondent said.

The survey was carried out by Professor Tanja Bueltmann, historian of migration and diaspora at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, between October and November 2022. About 1,139 UK citizens replied.

Of these, 80 per cent found acquiring their new status easy or very easy, 60.7 per cent feel their rights are secure, while 39.3 per cent have concerns about their status going forward.

Staying permanently

More than three quarters (76.6 per cent) of respondents said they plan to live permanently in the EU or the other countries of the European Economic Area and Switzerland. In fact, 65.7 per cent said that Brexit has increased the likelihood of this choice.

For some, the decision is linked to the difficulty to bring non-British family members to the UK under new, stricter immigration rules.

“My German wife and I decided we no longer wanted to live in UK post Brexit referendum. In particular, we were affected by the impact of immigration law […] We cannot now return to UK on retirement as I cannot sponsor her on my pension. We knew it was a one-way journey. Fortunately, I could revive an application for German citizenship,” was a testimony.

“My husband is a US citizen and getting him a visa for the UK was near impossible due to my low income as a freelance journalist. We realized under EU law, moving to an EU country was easier. We settled on Austria as we had both lived there before… we could speak some German, and we like the mountains,” said another respondent.

Professor Bueltmann noted that the loss of free movement rights in the EU could be a factor too in the decision of many to stay where they are.

Citizenship and representation

Among those who decided to stay, 38.2 per cent are either applying or planning to apply for a citizenship and 28.6 per cent are thinking about it.

A key finding of the research, Bueltmann said, is that the vast majority of British citizens do not feel politically represented. Some 60 per cent of respondents said they feel unrepresented and another 30 per cent not well represented.

Another issue is that less than half (47.5 per cent) trust the government of their country of residence, while a larger proportion (62 per cent) trust the European Union. Almost all (95.6 per cent) said they do not trust the UK government.

Feeling European

The survey highlights the Brexit impacts on people’s identity too. 82.6 per cent of respondents said they see themselves as European, a higher proportion than those identifying as British (68.9 per cent).

“Brexit has really left me unsure of what my identity is. I don’t feel British, and I certainly don’t identify with the mindset of a lot of British people who live there. Yet, I am not Danish either. So, I don’t really know anymore!” said one of the participants in the survey.

Professor Bueltmann said the survey “demonstrates that Brexit impacts continue to evolve: this didn’t just stop because the transition period was over or a deadline for an application had been reached. Consequently, Brexit continues to shape the lives and experiences of British citizens in the EU/EEA and Switzerland in substantial, sometimes life-altering, ways.”

Considering the results of the study, Professor Bueltmann recommends policy makers in the EU and the UK to address the issue of lack of representation, for instance creating a joint UK-EU citizens’ stakeholder forum.

The report also recommends the UK government to rebuild trust with British citizens in the EU introducing voting rights for life and changing immigration rules to allow British-European families to return more easily. 

This article was prepared in cooperation with Europe Street News.

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