Scotland and Catalonia gear up for independence votes


Both regions will vote on their independence this year but the legal issue of their relation to the EU in the case of secession is far from obvious, EurActiv France reports.

The struggle for independence in the two regions has triggered a multitude of questions at the European level.

Most notably, legal experts are divided as to whether a breakaway region should be automatically granted EU membership status in the case of a 'Yes' vote or whether a new accession procedure needs to take place.

Autonomy inside or outside the EU?

According to Yves Gounin, a French state advisor, the answer is not simple.

On the one hand, the willingness of these regions to be fully sovereign while denying their past obligations is an argument in favour of restarting the accession procedure from scratch.

But the existence of international treaties and the protection of individual rights leads to a full transfer of obligations from the past states - Spain and the UK - to Catalonia and Scotland.

The Vienna Convention of 22 August 1978 brings a few answers for the EU. Even though neither Spain nor the UK has ratified the convention, article 34 is often mentioned in relation to the issue: "Any treaty in force at the date of the succession of States in respect of the entire territory of the predecessor State continues in force in respect of each successor State so formed.”

These states’ links to international treaties depend on the institutional rules of each constitution. The UN for example treats the issue differently in its Charter, since a secessionist country cannot remain a UN member, the Charter says.

The European Commission shares the UN’s opinion. “If part of the territory of a Member State would cease to be part of that state because it were to become a new independent state, the Treaties would no longer apply to that territory,” said EU Commission President José Manuel Barroso in 2012.

Scotland well on the way

Meanwhile, separatists in Catalonia and Scotland are busy making preparations for their independence referendums.

Scotland appears the most advanced. The Scottish National Party (SNP) has pushed for autonomy since 1970. In 2012, the SNP’s leader, Alex Salmond, and the British prime minister, David Cameron, signed the Edinburgh Agreement, which foresees a referendum to be held on 18 September 2014.

Voters will have to answer the question along the lines of the already proposed: "Should Scotland be an independent country?"

A week before the signature of the Edinburgh agreement, a poll conducted for Scottish newspaper 'The Herald' reported that 28% of the population was in favour of independence. Even though separatists are more numerous today, many remain undecided.

The SNP published a white paper on the issue, deemed “the most detailed document ever written in favour of a country’s independence”, by the deputy prime minister, Nicola Sturgeon. The aim of the book is to shed light on the benefits and the changes that independence will bring.

Scotland is already largely independent. It has its own parliament and a decentralised government which handles different sectors such as health, education, environment and police. But defence, foreign affairs and economic policy are still under London’s control.

Strong support in Catalonia

In Catalonia, public opinion is more resolutely in favour of independence. A survey conducted in February 2013 revealed that 52.3% of Catalans are in favour of severing ties with Spain. And 47.4% say they would still be in favour if that meant being excluded from the EU, according to

The problem is that the Spanish constitution does not allow any of the regions to organise a vote or referendum over national sovereignty matters.

Artur Mas, the head of Catalonia's regional government, did not bother about such legal considerations and shocked Spanish authorities last December when he decided, together with a majority of his regional parliament, to hold an independence referendum on 9 November 2014.

Catalans will have to answer the following question: “Do you want Catalonia to be a state, yes or no?" If the answer is positive, a second consultation will be organised to ask: “Do you want this state to be independent?”

Separatist aspirations in Catalonia have tended to progress among public opinion, as illustrated by the numerous demonstrations held over the past years. On 11 September 2011, a majority of the 1.5 million people marching on national Catalan day were in favour of independence.

Two years later on the same date, 1.6 million people formed a 400km human chain to demand an independence vote.

Separatist chose 9 November “in order to give state institutions some time”.

But feelings remain contradictory. The president of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy, said he was “confident” that Spain would remain a unified state. Mariano Rajoy, the Spanish prime minister, shares the same opinion. In 2013, he said that if Scotland decided to be independent, it would need to request accession to the EU.

That question may help the undecided make up their minds as they cast their ballot.

  • 18 Sept. 2014 : Scottish independence referendum
  • 9 Nov. 2014 : Catalan independence referendum
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episkeptomenos's picture

In 2011 the Whole Europe stood by the Catalans in Placa de la Catalunia where they peacefully gave the first ever message of the European civil society supporting solidarity among Europeans.
Many things have changed in all the countries that participated in those mobilizations and of course division and populism in different measures has been the main argument of politicians.

John's picture

To "an european":
Catalonia and Scotland are both ancient European nations.
Catalonia got factual independence from the Carolingian Empire in the X Century, developped its own constitutions and institutions, which were in force until the Borbons got the power in the XVIII century (Spanish Succession war). Some of this self-government was recovered in the Republic periode (1931-1939) and in the post-Franco's Monarchy (as from 1978).
Nobody with a slight knowledge of history would dare to state that Catalonia is not a nation.
We should respect their right to self-determination.

Wullie MacRae's picture

The most recent poll in Scotland, conducted by ICM, shows a dramatic increase in support for independence:

47%YES, 53%NO

This is a fully 10% increase for support, half of that coming from NO voters switching to YES in just the last 2 months. And there's still 8 months to go before the referendum.

Richard's picture

The actual numbers are:

37% Yes
44% No
19% Don't know

Historical precedent suggests that in referenda, the side wishing to change the status quo usually needs a pre-referendum poll lead of at least 20 points to succeed, because it is a well known phenomenon that a voter faced with the actual point of decision in the ballot box has a tendancy to select the "safe option" of no change at the last moment, rather than making the leap into the unknown.

An example: in the 1975 referendum in the UK, the side advocating leaving the (then) EEC had a clear lead in the polls. In the referendum, the voters completely reversed this and selected the "safe option" of staying in.

tanguy's picture

can't comment on the french version so here I am!

"Le président de la Commission européenne Herman Van Rompuy" ( à la fin du texte)
erreur assez incroyable pour un site comme euractiv!!

tanguy's picture

can't comment on the french version so here I am!

"Le président de la Commission européenne Herman Van Rompuy" ( à la fin du texte)
erreur assez incroyable pour un site comme euractiv!!

Józef Niznik's picture

Since the EU is more than international organization the 1978 Vienna Convention should be the basis for the decision regarding the status of possible new states appearing within the EU. However, EU should be active in encouraging Scots and Catalans to stay within their current states. One of the possibilities would be to invent some kind of symbolic and maybe also institutional measures underlining their historical reasons for autonomy. At the same time EU should expose the arguments for unity of their present states.

Eric's picture

[Bonjour Florián Nous sommes effectivement en 2014 (sourire )Je n'ai jamais parlé que la Catalogne avait été une nation mais d'une nation état ce qui est aussi trés différent ....Maintenant comment peut-on concevoir un avenir si l'on oublie son passé??? Mais aussi que reste-il d'un peuple si l'on ne respecte pas sa volonté de vouloir vivre sa propre culture , sa langue et que l'on bafoue son histoire et décider à sa place de son avenir..Les Catalans ont toujours étaient considéré être un peuple à part par les Espagnoles ( intégration non compatible ) Qui est responsable de cette situation ??? chacun à sa propre interprétation à ce sujet .....Mais aujourd'hui les faits sont là La Catalogne demande son indépendance et vu que l'espagne se dit être un pays démocratique ,elle se doit même si cela est à contre coeur d'accepter que le peuple Catalan pûisse décider de son futur

Kevin's picture

Interestingly, at the time of the Scottish Devolution referendum, when asked the question 'If a Scottish parliament were established, in your view how likely is is that it will lead eventually to Scottish ndependence?'
54% said likely and 38% said unlikely.

At this stage in the "Independence Referendum" campaign, the polls are beginning to reflect that 1997 split, with supporters of independence rising to from 35% to 47% over the past 12 months and status quo falling to 53%.

With a full 8 months to run, and with the knowledge that the majority have always believed devolution would lead to independence, the momentum is surely with the "YES" campaign.

Furthermore, the "NO" to independence campaign has the insurmountable difficulty of campaigning for a negative result - the "NO" answer.

It has deployed negative arguments on a daily basis for a full 24 month period and while this has undoubtedly had an impact on poll responses, it has not fatally damaged the pro-independence campaign, as can be seen from the fact that "YES" responses are now increasing and look likely to form the majority opinion - even if narrowly so.

Salmond and the SNP are canny political operators. They know their electorate, they know when and how to deploy their resources to maximise their vote. If you doubt it, just recall how that Party demolished the Unionist Parties at the last Scottish Elections, winning a massive majority in a parliament where the proportional system was deliberately devised to prevent any such result.

In the month or so before polling, Salmond, the SNP and the YES campaign will content to have a 6%-10% lead in the opinion polls.

The question is - what ammuniction does the "NO" campaign have left? It looks increasingly that it has made the most catastrophic error of schoolboy campaigning - peaked too soon.

Richard's picture

We should remember that the poll taken at the time of the Scottish Devolution referendum, the question was do you think it will *lead to* independence - NOT do you *support* independence. Evidently many of those polled believed that devolution would inexorably lead to independence. Nor was any particular timeframe mentioned.

I have searched and can find no evidence of the 47% YES poll you quote. Moreover, the poll you quote indicates that there are NO undecided voters (47%+53% =100%) which seems an extremely unlikely state of affairs.

The latest polls indicate some increased support for independence, but falling far short of a majority - this relfects a historical norm, where support has fluctuated at around 30-35%. Indeed, the highest level of support for independence was in 2005/2006 where on one poll it peaked with an overall majority.

You are correct in saying that Salmond and party are canny political operators; they are extremely adept at avoiding difficult questions or putting assertions as statements of fact (for example, Scotland WILL keep the pound, it WILL enjoy continuity of EU membership with all UK opt-outs - neither of these things are within their power to gift since they require the agreement of other parties). Indeed, the entire White Paper is more a wish list of assertions, where Scotland gets to cherry pick bits of the UK, NATO and EU to it's liking and everyone else simply nods it all through without having counter demands of their own.

Negativity? I see little of that. What I do see is the Unionists asking pragmatic questions or potining out economic and political realities and the SNP avoiding awkward answers.

Historically, referenda indicate that the side wishing to change the status quo normally require a very substantial lead in polls (about 20 point sor so) because voters tend to change their minds at the last moment when they are faced with the actual decision, they tend to elect the "safe" option of no change, rather than a leap in the dark. This is not to say the side wanting change inevitably fails - but they need a bigger lead in pre-vote polls than you might think.

In the 1975 referendum concerning UK membership of the then EEC, the NO side had a substantial lead - but the voters completely overturned it and voted to remain in by a large margin.

Jack Davey's picture

Scotland has not, and is not now, a 'region', it is a nation. Period.