Can Scotland divorce London without alienating the EU?

While independence-minded Basques, Catalonians, and Corsicans may view Scotland's referendum as something to emulate, the Scottish first minister has distanced himself from their causes.

Manu Fernandez/AP
The Scottish blue-and-white saltire waves among Catalan flags during a demonstration calling for the independence of Catalonia in Barcelona, Spain, last Thursday.

Europeans seeking more autonomy from central governments – from Catalans and Basques in Spain to the Flemish in Belgium and Corsicans of France – have looked with admiration at Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond's pro-independence campaign.

But the last thing Mr. Salmond wants to do is become the spokesperson for the such secessionist movements because it could hurt an independent Scotland's own future within the European Union.

When Catalans rallied last week for their own independence from Spain, some Scottish flags flew in a sea of Catalan ones. But Salmond was quick to emphasize that what happens in Scotland isn't a template for the rest of Europe.

“This is a great process that we’re having in Scotland, I think it’s a fantastic thing,” Salmond said at a press conference in Edinburgh that day. “This is an agreed democratic process, and that’s the key distinction.”

Spain has outright rejected even the notion of a referendum for Catalonia, which is holding a non-binding vote on Nov. 9. Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy today described such referendums as "a torpedo below the waterline for European integration.” By contrast, both sides in the United Kingdom have accepted this referendum and agreed to negotiate a solution whichever way Scots vote. 

But Salmond's comments are also meant to woo Europe. His driving logic for Scottish independence is that Edinburgh doesn’t need London. Yet an independent Scotland would rely on the support of other European capitals if it wants to be an EU member. If he were to cozy up with Catalonia, for example, he risks alienating Spain’s central government.

“I think there is a sense in the senior ranks of the Scottish National Party that they don’t want to, at least at this stage, be seen as some kind of rallying point or symbol for the rest of these continental movements,” says Daniel Kenealy, a public policy and EU expert at the University of Edinburgh.

Still, those Europeans favoring independence can’t help but feel inspired by Salmond. 

Iñaki Muniain, a resident of Bilbao in Spain’s Basque Country, says he has supported Basque independence since his childhood and admires Salmond. “Or more than admiration it’s jealousy, that he’s giving the people the chance to vote,” says Mr. Muniain.

Democratic gap

At a meeting last week between the two main Basque nationalist parties, the PNV and SORTU, the president of the latter lamented on local radio that, unlike in Scotland and Catalonia, Basque leaders have not been able to unite around independence. In the Basque daily Deia, an August editorial argued that the Scottish referendum highlights "the enormous democratic gap that exists between the United Kingdom and the Kingdom of Spain.”

“I don’t know if it’s better to be independent or not, but I am in favor or people having the right to vote for what they want,” says Muniain.

Of course, while Salmond will be heralded if his vote is victorious, a result for "yes" would only be the first step. Scotland's prospects would then depend on how successfully it can negotiate with Westminster. And then Scotland would turn to the difficult task of negotiating its position inside the EU.

“The euphoria of Friday could quite quickly be replaced by tricky negotiations that don’t go Scotland’s way,” says Mr. Kenealy. "It could be that Scotland becomes a symbol of all the difficulties [of independence], as opposed to the hope and optimism in the aftermath of the vote.”

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