A woman unfolds a banner reading "Now it's time!" as a protester waves flags from Navarra, Catalonia and Scotland during a demonstration in support of a Catalan vote on independence from Spain, in the northern Spanish Basque city of Bilbao on September 9, 2014, ahead of the Diada. This year the Diada opens the final straight in the dash to hold a vote on whether Catalonia should break away from Spain -- a move the Spanish government has branded unconstitutional. AFP PHOTO / RAFA RIVAS (Photo credit should read RAFA RIVAS/AFP/Getty Images)

It hangs from thousands of balconies overlooking the great avenues of Barcelona. It flutters outside millionaires’ beach villas on the Costa Brava and is draped over crumbling farm houses in the Catalan hinterland.

Known as the Estelada, the flag combines the red-and-yellow stripes of Catalonia with a Cuban-style triangle and star. It is the emblem of the Catalan independence movement – and no one in the region can recall a time when it was more ubiquitous than it is today.

The Estelada’s proliferation just as Scotland is readying to vote on independence is no coincidence. Catalan activists have long looked to the Scottish campaign as a trailblazer – and to the UK in general as a model for how to resolve secessionist tensions. Indeed, the Catalans are determined to turn Scotland’s independence referendum into a precedent for their own struggle: the regional government in Barcelona says it will hold a regional plebiscite on Catalonia’s political future less than two months later, on November 9.

“It was feasible in the UK. It was feasible in Canada. So it should be feasible here in Spain,” says Albert Royo, the secretary-general of Diplocat, the Catalan body that handles public diplomacy.

Catalan officials and activists say a victory for the Scottish Yes campaign would give a boost to their own efforts. No less important, an independent Scotland would have to confront some of the very same legal and economic issues that would also be faced by a breakaway Catalan state. “If there is a Yes victory, certain issues such as membership of the EU and Nato would be easier for us,” says Mr Royo.

Yet despite the overlapping interests – and the proximity of the two plebiscites – officials say there is little co-ordination and communication between the two independence camps. Members of the Catalan government say they have very little contact with their Scottish counterparts. Artur Mas, the Catalan president, has never met Alex Salmond, Scotland’s first minister.

“The Scottish politicians have done something very intelligent. They have presented their case as a unique case. They have tried to say: we do not want to mix our case with other cases,” says Ricard Gené, a member of the Catalan National Assembly (ANC), the grassroots body that has played a central part in the independence campaign.

Like other Catalan activists, he believes Scotland’s reluctance to ally itself in public with Catalonia reflects fears that this would antagonise the Spanish government. This matters because an independent Scotland would need the backing of Madrid to remain in or rejoin the EU. “Scotland does not want to stir the pot very much,” says Mr Gené.

Much to the frustration of Catalan politicians, it is far from certain the November referendum will go ahead. The Spanish government says the country’s constitution prohibits such regional plebiscites and insists it will block the vote. The confrontation looks likely to end up in front of Spain’s constitutional court in the coming months – and few believe the tribunal will side with the Catalans.

In Madrid, government officials insist the cases of Catalonia and Scotland are fundamentally different, for historical and constitutional reasons. They point to a provision in Spain’s 1978 basic law that speaks of the “indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation” – a legal bar Madrid officials say cannot simply be brushed aside with a vote in parliament.

In Barcelona, such arguments find little favour. “Scotland and Catalonia resemble one another in some aspects but Spain and the UK resemble one another in nothing. London has a reasonable attitude and Madrid does not. One side respects the right to vote and the other one does not,” says Oriol Junqueras, leader of the Esquerra Republicana, a leftwing, pro-independence party in Catalonia.

Others point out that Scotland’s independence campaign was always led by Mr Salmond and his Scottish National party, while the driving force behind the Catalan push for independence are grassroots organisations such as the ANC. This, so the argument goes, should ensure the Catalan independence campaign will go on whatever the political manoeuvres that lie ahead.

“This is not a top-down process like the Scottish one. This is a bottom-up process,” says Mr Royo. “Experts and politicians here follow what is going on Scotland but the man in the street does not care.”

Get alerts on European separatism when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Follow the topics in this article