The mountaineering bug bit me while I was exploring the Scottish Highlands, and I have been looking for a new adventure ever since. Most recently, I jumped at the opportunity to hop on a plane leaving Edinburgh behind to tackle the world’s largest volcano (with the exception of those that Hawaii boasts). At 12,198 feet above the Atlantic, my friends and I, deprived of oxygen but basking in the welcoming rays of a blood-red sunrise, looked down upon the clouds shrouding the island of Tenerife. While we returned to our sea-level accommodations, adjacent to the Canarian parliament, we could have sworn that our minds were still suffering from the thin air, as what appeared to be St. Andrew’s cross fluttered above us. One Google search later and, lo and behold, we realized that it was the provincial flag of Tenerife itself, a near carbon copy of that which flies above Scottish parliament. While the origins of this shared signage remain murky at best, this emblem has taken on new meaning since the creation of devolved parliaments within the United Kingdom in 1998, which transferred varying levels of power from the U.K. parliament to those of its constituent member nations.
The devolution of Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish parliaments in 1998 came as the result of parallel referenda, in the former two, and the Belfast Agreement between the British government and eight Northern Irish political parties, in the latter. Through these legislative bodies, the regions are granted a degree of local autonomy by London, from which they still receive block funding for governance, which is allotted in accordance with both population size and degree of responsibility. While this arrangement still leaves the British parliament firmly in control of foreign affairs and national objectives, it has come to represent the primary model for Europe’s other semi-autonomous communities. The Scottish parliament’s recent vote to pursue a second independence referendum in response to the United Kingdom invoking Article 50 has only amplified this sentiment.
In light of the autonomy of its member provinces, Spain must tread lightly in considering the question of whether to support the entrance of a formerly devolved, once secessionist, government in the European Union, should Scotland succeed in seceding. Per its 1978 constitution, Spain consists of 17 comunidades autonomas, all of which were integrated on the basis of shared provincial histories or economies and are governed through regional parliaments. As a result, Spain remains one of the most decentralized countries within the OECD, with less than 20 percent of annual public spending deriving from the central government. Of these 17 localities, Catalonia, the Basque country, and Galicia routinely call for complete secession from the Spanish state. At the moment, Basques and Galicians have subdued such talk, following armed conflict in the past decade, while the Catalan parliament has threatened a September 2017 independence referendum.
Spain’s refusal to engage in talks regarding further devolution with the loudest of its constituent polities positions it to have the most to lose, excluding the United Kingdom, were an independent Scotland to apply for EU membership. As the vast majority of Spaniards view Brexit as deleterious to their own struggling economy, the prospect of retaining a fraction of the British economy within the shared market has garnered support. But, despite Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s insistence that the contextual differences between Catalan and Scottish independence are great, such a stance would undoubtedly stoke secessionist fires. Catalan President Carles Puigdemont has explicitly aligned himself with the fate of Scottish independence, stating in multiple interviews and tweets that “what goes for Scotland, goes for Catalonia.” While the Spanish constitution asserts that the union of its regions is “dissoluble,” Puigdemont views it as a mere technicality that would not outlive the demonstrated conviction of a referendum.
As Spain will play a role in determining the severity of Brexit negotiations, and would hold veto power over the theoretical readmission of Scotland into the European Union, it finds itself in an unfavorable situation. Its commitment to the EU obligates it to punish the United Kingdom for eschewing the European project, but its pragmatic pursuit of silenced self-determination behooves it to undermine attempts at Scottish independence. Given the weakened state of the Scottish economy, Spanish pragmatism would hope to ensure a cushy landing for the European trade relationships of the United Kingdom, thus eliminating the main platform for the Scottish Nationalist Party. Faced with existential questions at the state and international level, Spain’s association with Scotland has far outgrown what was once just simple flag trivia. Regardless of whether or not Scottish independence does materialize in the coming years, the connection between the two countries has become indicative of the many nuances European policymakers will need to remain aware of over the course of Brexit negotiations.