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Shades of Solidarity: Comparing Scottish and Flemish Responses to the Catalan Referendum

Published: 10 February 2021

From their recently published article, Judith Sijstermans (University of Birmingham) and Coree Brown Swan (Centre on Constitutional Change) examine how European sub-state nationalist parties, specifically the Flemish Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie (N-VA) and the Scottish National Party (SNP), provided support and solidarity throughout the 2017 Catalan referendum. 

our recently published article, we look back on the 2017 Catalan independence referendum, a seminal moment for territorial politics, through the lens of transnational solidarity. Throughout the Catalan referendum campaign and aftermath, Catalan independentists sought to internationalize their independence process. In the newly created position of Minister for External Relations, Raul Romeva travelled widely to European capitals with a mission of explaining the Catalan process. Former Catalan President Carles Puigdemont aimed much of his post-referendum dialogue abroad and went into exile in Brussels, which he emphasized is the heart of the European Union.

However, the EU maintained its distance from Catalonia and few states provided support given pressure from Spain. Instead, activists and representatives from other sub-state nationalist parties flocked to Catalonia’s defence. We ask: how were pleas for nationalist solidarity received by Catalonia’s counterparts across Europe?

We specifically evaluate whether and how two of Europe’s most powerful sub-state nationalist parties, the Flemish Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie (N-VA) and the Scottish National Party (SNP), responded to the Catalan referendum. Here, we summarize what the lens of transnational solidarity can tell us about the European sub-state nationalist network and what it can tell us about the N-VA and the SNP specifically.

Solidarity Is Not Dead

Transnational relationships between sub-state nationalists had a hey-day in the 1990s and early 2000s, a period that spawned the ‘Europe of the Regions’ vision. Scholars at the time considered whether, in the context of subsidiarity and regional lobbying, there might one day be a veritable ‘third level’ of the European Union. However, this vision soon saw its ‘rise and fall,’ with the Committee of the Regions becoming more akin to a talking shop than an equal partner to the European Commission and Parliament.

We argue that the failure of a full formed third institutional level does not preclude meaningful mutual support between sub-state nationalists. Now, regions still seek influence in the EU, but their behaviour is akin to a lobbying group and that lobbying often occurs domestically rather than in Brussels. We propose using the concept of solidarity, which we define as a willingness to act or speak collectively across transnational boundaries. This solidarity is based in a ‘social empathy’ which can apply to ‘relations of an individual to the members of a different group, and to the relations among groups’ (Gould 2007).

We find that both Scottish and Flemish nationalists took significant actions, often at own cost, to show support to Catalan counterparts. For some, this took the form of travelling to observe the referendum and participate in campaign activities or welcoming Catalan politicians in exile to their cities and party events, for example. The parties also spoke on behalf of Catalonia in their national parliaments and the European Parliament. This case of collective action highlights the remaining connections between Europe’s sub-state nationalists and shows their commitment to acting together to promote sub-state autonomy.

Self-Serving Solidarity

While solidarity allows us to re-examine the sub-state nationalist network in Europe, it can also tell us something about the specific parties we are studying. We considered the behaviour of individuals in the SNP and N-VA as well as the party as whole which allowed us to find varying levels of cohesion.

We found that solidarity was contingent on the domestic positions of the Scottish and Flemish nationalists. The N-VA, for example, showed much more intense and cohesive solidarity with Catalonia. Party press releases condemned ‘militant Spanish nationalism’ and arguing that ‘the brutal crackdown by the police, the public support for violence by Rajoy’s supporters, the movement of the military into Catalonia and the demonstrations by Franco-fascist splinter parties are alarming signals of a state nationalism which has gone awry.’ The party also organised an initiative to send Christmas cards to Catalan political prisoners. Their vocal support of Catalonia led to the Flemish representative in Spain having their credentials suspended. We argue that this intensity of solidarity is what Bart Maddens called ‘separatism by proxy’ for a party that was forced to compromise its territorial aims in coalition building processes.

Source: @NVA_EU Twitter

On the other hand, the SNP’s response was significantly less intense and cohesive given internal party tensions on the timing of a second referendum and the Catalan unilateral declaration of independence. SNP First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s approach emphasized the right to self-determination, rather than the benefits of Catalan independence. Ten days before the vote, Sturgeon said in the Scottish Parliament: ‘It is, of course, entirely legitimate for Spain to oppose independence for Catalonia, but it is a concern if any state seeks to deny people’s right to democratically express their will.’ Nonetheless, individuals such as SNP Youth leaders and individual MSPs and MPs, spoke out more harshly comparing the Spanish state to Franco-era politics and ‘thuggery.’

For both the SNP and the N-VA, solidarity was not distinguishable from the parties’ own independence processes. In this way, a network of solidarity does still exist between sub-state nationalists, but it is ultimately contingent on how expressions of solidarity might serve (or counteract) domestic goals. This network of solidarity may be activated in future independence referendums, either here in Scotland or in Catalonia, where independence remains a salient political issue.

Judith Sijstermans  is a Research Fellow in the Department of Politics and International Studies (POLSIS) in the University of Birmingham, where she works on the ESRC-funded project ‘Populism in Action’.

Coree Brown Swan is Deputy Director of the Centre on Constitutional Change, where she works on comparative territorial politics, intergovernmental relations, and the politics of union/independence.

'Shades of Solidarity: Comparing Scottish and Flemish responses to Catalonia' was published on 4 February 2021 in Regional and Federal Studies.

Image by Sasha Popovic on Flickr

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