Spain has opposed any talks with the Scottish government over a possible future EU membership bid for fear of fueling secessionist forces in Catalonia in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum.
Britain’s decision to leave the European Union has encouraged Edinburgh to push for a second referendum to win independence from the UK.
This time around, the Scottish move was welcomed by the EU institutions.
Alyn Smith, an MEP from the Scottish National Party, received a long standing ovation when he gave a pro-European speech at the European Parliament’s plenary session on Tuesday (28 June).
“Please remember this. Scotland did not let you down. Please, I beg you, do not let Scotland down now,” he told MEPs
Nicola Sturgeon, Scottish First Minister, used the momentum to embark on a Brussels tour and prepare the ground for a potential EU bid.
But Spain’s Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, poured cold water on the Scottish plan.
“We are totally against. The treaties are totally against and I think everyone is totally against,” he said flatly.
“The only interlocutor is the United Kingdom, otherwise we are destroying the treaties,” he told journalists on Wednesday (29 June) after a two-day EU summit in Brussels.
If Britain leaves the EU, “Scotland will leave” too, added Rajoy, who attended the summit while trying to forge a government coalition after winning the Spanish general elections last Sunday.
Asked if Spain would veto a request for an independent Scotland to join the EU, he replied that the question was too hypothetical.
“I do not know what will happen in the future,” he answered.
Sturgeon had declared earlier that a second independence referendum in Scotland was “highly likely” after Britain voted to leave the EU last week.
Sturgeon met on 29 June with European Parliament President Martin Schulz. She also met with the leaders of the Parliament’s main political groups, including Rajoy’s centre-right European People’s Party (EPP), the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) as well as the Liberals.
EPP sources told EURACTIV that the meeting was primarily aimed at listening to Scotland’s views on the EU following the Brexit referendum. But EPP leader, Manfred Weber, made it clear that no steps will be taken until London activates article 50 of the EU treaty, which sets off a two-year divorce procedure.
On the eve of his meeting, Schulz said the intention was to get the Scottish government’s position on the EU.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, also agreed to meet with her after the summit on 29 June (Wednesday).
A Commission official noted the high level of support for EU membership not only among Scottish citizens but also in Westminster. “We have 60 Scottish MPs in the British Parliament that we need to listen to,” the official commented.
Sources explained that Juncker had waited for British Prime Minister David Cameron to leave Brussels before announcing his meeting with Sturgeon on Wednesday, only hours before it took place.
European Council President, Donald Tusk, refused to meet with her because this was “not the right moment”, a member of his team explained.
Sturgeon’s tour came amidst EU leaders’ efforts to speed up the divorce process with the UK and parallel talks to rethink the bloc with only 27 members.
As expected, Sturgeon’s diplomatic push in Brussels was immediately noticed by nationalist forces in Spain.
Carles Puigdemont, Catalonia’s regional president, said the EU would “radically” change its views on the processes of self-determination as a consequence of Brexit.
He told anti-separatist MPs in Parliament that they should be “more prudent” when stating that an independent Catalonia would immediately fall outside the EU.
“At this moment, the first minister of Scotland is meeting with European Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker…you will see how Brussels will change radically its view on cases like Scotland and Catalonia, because it is already happening”.
But while Europe is in listening mode with Edinburgh, experts and officials agree that Scotland and Catalonia are two different animals.
“These are opposite cases”, Pedro Lopez, a senior EPP official told EURACTIV. “If Catalonia wants to use the Scottish issue, they will have to explain first why they want to leave the EU by leaving Spain”, he added.
Pro-independence feeling has surged in Catalonia in recent years, fanned by disagreements with the conservative central government and Spain's sharp economic downturn, which has left nearly one in four people out of work, despite a slow recovery in recent months.
During a symbolic independence referendum held in November 2014, which the top court in Spain ruled unconstitutional, only 1.9 million out of 6.3 million potential voters cast their ballot in favour of secession.
Before the elections, secessionist had announced their intention to carry on with the breakaway process and declare independence within 18 months, should they earn an absolute majority.
Their plans include approving a Catalan constitution, building institutions like an army, central bank, a judicial system and a tax collection agency.
In the most extreme scenario, the Spanish government could activate Article 155 of the constitution, suspending Catalan autonomy, although this would be under very exceptional circumstances.