The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
Will Spain Keep Scotland in the UK?

Via Meadia readers have been following the progress of Scotland’s push for a referendum on secession from the UK. Evidence that the English want the Scots out may dampen the ardor for independence north of the Border; now comes the news that Spain may block any effort by a newly independent Scotland to join the EU.

For the Spanish government, the calculation is simple. Spain is full of restive regions that want to go their own way: Catalonia and the Basque country in particular have strong independence movements. One argument that separatists in European countries use is that because the newly independent countries could join the EU, independence is a low cost, low risk step.

Spain would like to take that argument out of the hands of its separatists. And Spain is not the only country worried about regions wanting to go their own way. The richer, Dutch speaking parts of Belgium would like to ditch their poorer French speaking compatriots. Italy’s Northern League would like to set up shop on its own. An agreement among Europe’s central governments to make like tough for secessionist wannabes would strengthen the hands of all governments dealing with pesky, recalcitrant regions.

Spain’s stand against secession is nothing new. Spain has refused to recognize the independence of Kosovo, the breakaway Serbian region recognized by many countries around the world, including the US, as an independent republic. As a result, Kosovo’s path toward the EU is blocked. Kosovo remains in limbo even as other ex-Yugoslav countries (most recently Croatia) join the EU.

The Scottish nationalists have argued that Scotland would immediately join the EU, benefiting from EU spending on poor regions and enjoying all the rights and privileges of the single market. Any change to that forecast would have a serious impact on voter support for a break up. If Spain persists in this approach, it could well keep the UK in one piece.

Published on January 23, 2012 7:27 am
  • bob sykes

    No country in Europe (including Turkey) has stable borders. None. The modern borders are not even legitimate.

    Does anyone believe that a Russia without Kiev or a Germany without Prussia is possible? When America finally withdraws from Europe, the Europeans will return to settling old scores.

  • dearieme

    Actually, the Scottish/English border has been remarkably stable and is often said to be (much) the oldest in Europe. The exception is its extreme eastern end i.e. Berwick-upon-Tweed, and even it last changed hands before 1500.

  • http://www.theparenttrigger.com Bruno Behrend

    If there was only one way for a region/population to leave the EU, you would eventually end up having to break the cardinal rule against putting all your Basques in one Exit.

    Just a thought…

  • dearieme

    Personally, I would vote for Scottish Independence only if it were independence outside the EU. But since I now live in England I expect I’ll be denied a vote anyway.

  • Tom Richards

    Of course, a Spanish promise not to let seceding regions into the EU could actively encourage English separatists . . .

  • ARH

    When we think of this kind of factitious behavior, we tend to envision Yugoslavia or the current state Iraq. One thing is for certain, the desire for nationalistic autonomy yearns strong throughout history. We don’t appreciate political stability in American, although we should, especially given our land and population size, coupled with our diverse makeup and many regions with distinct cultures.

    In “Around the Cragged Hill,” George Kennan pondered what would be the optimal state size. On one hand you have the concept of self determination, that people should have the right to organize and govern themselves according to their own ethnic, religious, or political traditions. On the other hand, as smaller and smaller groups want that autonomy, you run the risk of grinding down modern states into city-state like structures, which don’t have a large enough capacity (GDP, population, resource endowment) to do certain essential state functions like defense.

    Regardless, nationalism and the desire for autonomy are some of the strongest dynamics in human relations. We’d be wise to observe these instances, figure out how to best bridge the gap between self determination and bare minimum state capacities, and apply that analytical lens to other instances in foreign relations.

    For example, while China will pose various challenges in the coming years and decades, they have a long history of consolidation and facture, followed by consolidation, and fracture. I suspect this dynamic, along with many others, will act as a check on their ability to project power outwards in the future.

    Something else to consider; what framework should US policy makers use when supporting or opposing various (quasi) secessionist movements? At the expense of being overly simplistic and morally equivalent, why exactly is it that we support (tacitly or otherwise) the succession of Georgia and other Caucasus states from Russia post USSR, or Taiwan from China, but don’t support (or at least without strong qualifications) such desires for autonomy concerning Kurds in Iraq, or Palestinians territories from Israel? Also, what can we learn from such unique political accommodations like Vatican City and Italy, Monaco and France, or the SARs from China?

    While Scotland and Spain aren’t terribly important geopolitically, this post is timely and brings up important concepts.

  • Joe

    Come on, when has the Liberum veto ever led to political instability?

  • tom beebe st louis

    Will this century see the end of nation states? The idea of a confederacy with power closer to the people begins to make more sense everyday. From our civil war to 9/11, wars were the product of nation vs. nation. Would an Uslamic confederacy of Sunnistan, shiistan, Kurdistan, Pakistan, Uzbeckistan, etc. bring stability there, or at least make the wars smaller and internal? The remants of the British empire, Australia, New zealand, canada, etc seem peaceful enough without rule by the crown. Then there’s arizona, Texas,……

  • BarryD

    Scotland and Spain are vitally important to me. Spain supplies some of the best barrels, whereas Scotland puts the single malt whisky into them.

    To be noted: the Basque Autonomous Region in Spain has a dramatically higher per capita GDP than the rest of Spain, and than the EU. One suspects that Spain’s interest in keeping the region is motivated largely by the tax base…

  • Jacknut

    Bruno, wars have started over better puns than that. :) Thank you.

  • CalisseTabarnac

    “Basques in one Exit”.

    Very clever.

  • Mark E

    “t Spain may block any effort by a newly independent Scotland to join the EU.”

    You say that as if not being ruled by Brussels is a bad thing.

  • GMH

    Say AHR, you left out the secessionist movements in the USA, say the flyover country from the east and west coasts. How come?

  • Mastro

    How can Scotland benefit from the EU’s handouts to poor areas while bragging about their oil/gas riches?

    Wouldn’t the much poorer areas of the EU be first in line?

  • asdf

    Woodrow Wilson rears his ugly head yet again.

    With the EU falling apart, it seems to me that bickering over who gets buffet privileges on the sinking ship isn’t very important. What’s of interest here is the nationalist impulses that are behind it. In a post-EU world, which regions will put their separatist impulses aside, and which will double down?

    I can’t see Scotland seceding from the UK. But the Basques might well use the chaos of a dissolution as an opportunity. Which countries do and don’t will affect where the flashpoints and opportunities are in the post-EU world.

    The countries most likely to succumb to breakup would seem to be those who are already in a fiscal mess. That would leave the Franco-German axis the only game in town on the Continent, but removes them as a world player.

  • Daniel Rodríguez Herrera

    BarryD: I’m afraid that’s not the case. Basque Autonomous Region has a special tax deal that allows it to pay less to the central government that almost every other region in Spain. Getting rid of the basques will probably be a boost in terms of public debt and deficit for Spain, everything else being equal.

  • Willis

    Well, as Andrew Sullivan advised secessionists everywhere “if at first you don’t secede, suck til you do secede.” And he means it.

  • Colin

    Catalonia is also richer than the rest of Spain and they are tired of seeing their taxes used to subsidize public works projects for their Spanish cousins. Anyone further interested in this topic should watch this very well done video:

    http://vimeo.com/24052492

  • Eurydice

    You know, I don’t think I ever want to hear another word about how Europeans are so much smarter than Americans.

    So basically, Scotland wants to go on welfare? And all the rich people want to start their own country club, where they can become even wealthier by selling…to whom? Back and forth to each other? All the poor people waiting outside? Maybe they can lend those poor people some money…oh, wait.

    Nobody’s self-sufficient. Whether there is a political union in Europe or not, whether the Northern League remains a part of Italy or not, whether Catalonia joins the EU or not, and whatever Germany thinks about Greece, everybody still has to live and do business with everybody else.

  • Mark W

    If England would rather shed Scotland, then the world really has changed. We used to have wars and political strife because countries were trying to take other territories. Now we would be seeing political strife because countries want to walk away from territories and leave it to another political entity (the EU) to deal with the problem.

  • patch

    “If at first you can’t secede, try, try again”.

  • BarryD

    “everybody still has to live and do business with everybody else”

    Sure. But doing business involves free choice. I can buy something from you, but if somebody else sells me something better, for less money, I can stop buying it from you and buy it from them. And if you want me to give you money just because you’re alive, then I can laugh at you and move on.

    “Doing business” would not mean that Germany has to give money to Greece. It means that Greece has the opportunity to sell stuff to Germany. If it has nothing to offer, then Germany owes nothing to Greece.

  • Mrs. Davis

    The British genome is most closely related to the Basque. Just sayin.

  • Adam Maas

    A simple solution: Let England and Wales secede and let Scotland remain in the EU as the UK of Scotland.

    Yep, it’s splitting hairs, but it would solve the issue without setting a precedent that would annoy Spain and at the same time getting England and Wales out of the EU.

  • Eurydice

    @BarryD – It’s not like Germany woke up one morning to suddenly find itself a victim of an economic union forced on them by aliens from another planet. Germany is a major architect of the EU and of its rules – and the other members are no strangers, not economically or politically.

    And nowhere in my post did I say that doing business meant giving money away. Germany needs markets to sell its products just as Greece does.

  • Corlyss

    Who put the Spaniards up to it? LOL

    Admittedly the Scots are little daft, but really, is it their Culloden gene that compels them to leave relative safety to join an organization whose recent welcome message is, “Glad to have you! Here’s your share of the bill.”

  • http://lorenzo-thinkingoutaloud.blogspot.com/ Lorenzo from Oz

    If Scotland seceded from the UK, why would not the Shetlands and Orkneys secede from Scotland? They are not Scots and would take much of the North Sea oil with them.

  • Paulista

    Re 27
    Of course the people of Shetland and Orkney are Scots. Some have a Scandinavian heritage but most are descended from the Scotish mainland and the islands have been part of Scotland for about 500 years. There are also no parties calling for separation/federation etc. This is a typical unionist tactic to try and cover up the frustration at the prospect of Scotland voting for independence.

  • lol

    We actually are for independence of Scotland within the frame of the EU, we perceive Scots, Welsh and Irish as people who are being oppressed in the same way I guess British see Basques and Catalonians, with the difference the Spanish public tend to know it might be exaggerated, most of us anyway.

    Keep in mind that the Autonomous Communities in Spain are the ones saying how much on taxes they want to pay, and that the ones that pay higher taxes, often pay less to the Central Government than to their own Community Capital, Catalonia for example uses most of their taxes to open Embassies different from the Spanish ones in other countries and maintain them, because they feel we don’t represent their interests, obviously Madrid is not going to pay for that so they have to do it by themselves.

    Basques don’t give to Madrid [profanity removed] either, the thing with the Basques is the heavy production which Franco relocated from other parts of Spain to there, I personally would like both the Basques and Catalonians to be independent now as it would mean the Spanish debt will be way way lesser than it is now and they will sink into povertry while we watch it and laugh from the other side of the border, but I am not in power to do so…

    I don’t know how the situation is in the UK for real and because I am not an arrogant Englishmen I do not presume to make any judgments unless I can inform myself better of how all this devolution system and so actually works.

    Just stating that Spain is less centralized than the US, and therefore way waaay less centralized than the UK.