Despite suppression efforts by the Spanish government and questions about its constitutionality, the people of Catalonia voted in favour of being an independent nation last month. While talks between the region and Barcelona are underway, the referendum’s effect remains unclear as of yet, but the prospect of a divorce from the rest of Spain is now closer than it has ever been in recent memory. Similar considerations of independence are consistently raised in other regions across Europe. At the Scottish National Party conference last week, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon once again reignited her mission to remove Scotland from the UK. The looming question for both regions as they push for autonomy concerning the European Union remains: does a newly independent nation have any chance of regaining membership? If not, will they be able to survive outside of the institution altogether?
Directly comparing Catalonia’s potential exit from Spain with Scotland’s succession from the UK is difficult, as Catalonia holds a far bigger stake in Spain’s economy than Scotland does in the UK’s. As Roger Bootle points out, Catalonia’s impact on Spain’s economy is almost comparable to London on Britain’s. Better news for Catalonian separatists, bad news for Spain. Bad news for the EU too; a sizable chunk of one of its key member-states would be out of its single market for a considerable amount of time. Scotland, on the other hand, makes up a decidedly less sizable portion of the UK’s economy; it’s population is less than 8% of the entire UK (whereas Catalonia makes up nearly double that fraction in Spain) and its GDP lags behind the rest of the United Kingdom. Catalonia, conversely, performs much stronger on average than Spain en masse: it’s GDP is significantly higher, unemployment is lower, and youth employment rates are considerably higher.
But Catalonia’s relative success as a region would likely face a challenge as it is initially ousted from the European Union after gaining independence. Both an independent Catalonia and Scotland face a huge uphill battle in reintegrating with the EU, and it’s worth considering how each country would fair in the meantime, before their membership is established. Consequences of existing outside the EU are becoming widely familiar as Brexit talks stagnate and the prospect of a catastrophic “no deal” looms larger. The overwhelming majority of Catalonia and Scotland’s trade is within their own existing countries, the rest of Spain and Britain respectively. Whilst a trade deal would likely be established early-on in any separation negotiations, operating outside the EU’s single market would likely have explosive damaging effects on these nations.
In the run-up to the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, leaders of the ‘No’ campaign specifically cited Spain as a major opponent within the EU of Scotland gaining membership, fearing it would help legitimise any potential for an independent Catalonia. Clearly Spain’s opposition was not effective in stoking the fears of the Catalonians, but opposition from Spain and other member-states would likely be the most significant stumbling-block for both an independent Scotland and Catalonia to overcome. Each potential member must garner unanimous approval from each existing member’s representation within the EU, and from those members’ national parliaments. This is a hard barrier to cross, as Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy continues his opposition and suppression of Catalonian independence. Prime Minister Theresa May also made clear earlier this week that she would not recognise any declaration from Catalonia as an independent country.
In the event it becomes clear that existing members are willing to allow these countries membership of their own, most of the heavy work still remains. Any states, newly independent or not, interested in joining the EU must first meet the Copenhagen Criteria, which requires that the potential member-state must be, among other things, democracies, upholders of human rights, and runners of a functioning market economy. Any region from within an existing member state susceptible to succession will already meet these requirements, of course. But, the difficulty in joining the EU would lie in negotiation, a notoriously lengthy process. Turkey, for instance, began its negotiations to become a member-state in 2005, and while accession talks stopped last year, negations were only nearing the halfway mark after over a decade of talks. After the inevitably tumultuous set of negotiations to reach an independence arrangement with the Spanish and the British government, each respective hypothetical new country would likely spend many years outside of the EU before it could reap any of its benefits. Most would agree that these smaller nations would benefit from being part of the larger European network, but even if both do pursue membership, and get some kind of approval to join from the existing members, this lengthy negotiation process could spell-out a disastrous start to each new nation.
An independent Scotland and an independent Catalonia would be better off inside the Union, but the prospect of no membership is likely. And any economic forecasts drawn up must examine the prospects for a brand-new country out on its own for an indefinite amount of time. Drawn-out divorce processes from its current countries would leave both new nations fragile and diminished on the global stage. Regaining anything is only possible through the EU, making it difficult to justify taking such a risk towards regaining membership when the stakes are so high outside it.