European integration has roused separatist movements across the continent.
The past has become contested territory in a struggle over state legitimacy. Devolution, introduced to reinforce member states’ cohesion, now forces
the UK and Spain to reap what they have sown.

Hand in hand: the Catalan Estelada and Scottish Saltire in Barcelona, 11 September 2013 © Judith Esteban via Wikimedia Commons

At the opening ceremony of the 1992 Summer Olympic Games in Barcelona, King Juan Carlos I and Queen Sofía entered the stadium to the strains of the Catalan national anthem. Rising to officially open the XXV Olympiad, the King’s first words to a global audience were in Catalan. But the jovial mood became positively rhapsodic as the heir to the throne, the Prince of Asturias (now King Felipe VI), himself a member of that year’s Spanish sailing team, led his colleagues into the stadium while bearing the Spanish flag. This tour de force in choreography hailed Spain’s stunning return to the world stage in the seventeen years since the end of Francisco Franco’s dictatorship.

In that timespan, Spain had consolidated its transition to democracy by first joining NATO and then the European Economic Community (EEC). Part of this process entailed a policy of devolution to Spain’s ‘historical nationalities’, the autonomías – notably in Catalonia, the Basque Country and Galicia. Prior to 1975, the image of the Spanish and Catalan flags flying side by side before the cameras of the world would have been unthinkable. Yet, in 1992 the respect for the Olympic host city’s status as the capital of Catalonia was a testament to Spain’s cohesiveness as a united kingdom.

Twenty years later, it was the United Kingdom’s turn to host the XXX Olympiad. However, the opening ceremony’s only nod to the realm’s quadripartite make-up was a medley of patriotic songs associated with England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, sung by children. The Union Flag alone represented all the constituent countries of the UK, obscuring the host city’s function as both the British and English capital. In fact, no heraldry from any of the British nations featured in the spectacle. As in 1992, royalty assumed a memorable role.

Though whereas Juan Carlos’ presence played second fiddle to the national themes in Barcelona’s pageant, Elizabeth II’s was the highlight of London’s. Escorted by none other than James Bond, the Queen ‘parachuted’ into the stadium. Soon after, her thunderous facial expression and apparent indifference to the entrance of Team GB was in stark contrast to the Borbóns’ engagement two decades earlier. Naturally, in 1992, a relatively new political order, which owed its good fortune to a tactful and shrewd monarch, had much to prove. With hindsight, it is possible to construe the Queen’s aloofness in 2012 as not simply the impatience of an octogenarian, but hubris.

Ever since 1603, Scotland and England had shared the same monarch. The Acts of Union fused the political institutions of these countries together in 1707 as the Kingdom of Great Britain. By the time Elizabeth II was opening the 2012 Olympics, a plan to put the Scottish National Party’s (SNP) dream of an independent Scotland to the Scottish people was high on the agenda. A referendum on the issue had been a key pledge in the SNP’s manifesto during the 2011 election campaign to the Scottish Parliament. When the poll finally transpired in 2014, it resulted in close defeat for separatist hopes, putting the issue to bed for another generation.

That was until the UK itself held a referendum over its membership of the European Union in June 2016. A slim majority tipped the balance towards Brexit but the results across the UK were far from uniform. There was a clear pro-Remain outcome in major British cities, and Scotland as a whole voted overwhelmingly in favour of the status quo. The UK has grappled with the prospect of Brexit to date. And in March 2017, the SNP Leader, Nicola Sturgeon, announced her intention to seek another plebiscite on Scottish independence in response to the British Government’s pursuit of a ‘hard Brexit’. Hubris, indeed, for the longest-reigning monarch in British history, whose twilight years on the throne have been rocked by the most profound constitutional earthquakes in living memory.

Acting as the lynchpin of their kingdoms’ miscellaneous components, monarchies also flaunt themselves as a bridge between the past and present. For all her popularity, Elizabeth II’s longevity, coinciding as it has with the decline of British power around the world, has become synonymous with nostalgia. The 2005 film, The Queen, starring Helen Mirren, used geography to allegorize the British Monarchy’s dilemma. It charts the wave of anti-royalist sentiment that swept the UK in the week after Diana, Princess of Wales’ death in 1997. As calls for her to return to the epicentre of fickle, modish London escalate, the Queen retreats into a timeless Caledonian routine on her estate at Balmoral. Where the film associates England with frightening modernity, Scotland represents the familiar past.

The Spanish Monarchy cannot afford to overindulge in nostalgia. Not only would this force a reckoning with its debt to Franco’s manoeuvrings, it would undermine the integrity of the so-called ‘pact of forgetting’, which was given legal clout via the 1977 Amnesty Law and is widely seen as vital to the transition’s success. As a flag-bearer at the 1992 Olympics, Felipe cut a youthful figure, projecting an image of vigour and confidence in Spain’s future course. This was lacking at London 2012.

Moreover, in 2014, mired by a number of scandals, Juan Carlos bowed out, passing the Crown to his son. Visibly frail and self-effacing to the last, the King deferred to the ‘younger generation’, using his final address to emphasize the ‘new energies’ demanded by present-day concerns. Indeed, it is now customary among some of Europe’s royal households for elderly monarchs to abdicate in favour of young blood.

How this ‘younger generation’ might deal with the prospect of a breakaway Scotland is an intriguing question. Founded on a compromise whereby its autonomías exist within the fabric of a unitary Spanish state, Madrid’s likely reaction would be tepid at best. Nevertheless, the prospect of Brexit has compelled Spain to draft a contingency plan ahead of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. The circumstances in which a second Scottish independence referendum may take place are entirely different from those in 2014. Furthermore, the paradigm of post-Francoist Spain’s handling of nationalist/regionalist affairs provides an important exemplar to Scotland and the UK as a whole.

How this ‘younger generation’ might deal with the prospect of a breakaway Scotland is an intriguing question.


Established along the frontline of the Cold War, the EEC soon became synonymous with democratic norms. Juan Carlos committed himself to dismantling the Franco regime – in his first speech as King to the Cortes he alluded to his faith in the stabilizing effect European membership might have on democratization: ‘Europe would not be complete without reference to the presence of Spain … we the Spaniards are European’. When Spain acceded to the EEC in 1986, it was done in full acceptance of the surrender of certain aspects of national sovereignty demanded by supranationalism. Without doubt, post-Francoist Spain benefited enormously from Europeanization, both economically and politically. For example, barely a decade after admission, Spain was receiving a greater net amount than all the other member states.

Where Europeanization redefined Spain as a nation-state, it simultaneously acted to distort its cohesion. Membership emboldened Spain’s autonomías. However, the interplay has assumed extremely different forms. In Spain, 1833-2002, People and State, Mary Vincent explores this phenomenon at length. She distinguishes Jordi Pujol, the Catalan Generalitat’s president from 1980 to 2003. For Pujol, the EU presented an attractive framework through which to implement his policy of fer país (‘making a country’).

The Patronat Català Pro Europa established a Catalan mission in Brussels, a pioneering channel through which regionalism was able to bypass the restraints of national frontiers and safeguard cultural identity at a supranational level. In the Basque Country, the EU’s categorization of regional autonomies as constitutive ‘parts’ of member states is largely regarded as yet another obstacle to the achievement of full sovereignty.

Although Catalonia has flourished under the auspices of the EU, outright Catalan independence remains a potent force. Mariano Rajoy, Spanish Prime Minister since 2011, openly denounced the Scottish independence referendum of 2014. He insisted the SNP’s confidence in the ease by which an independent Scotland could join the EU was delusional. He also intimated his expectation that the UK would veto the prospect of an independent Catalonia applying for EU membership. To advocates of Catalan independence, Westminster’s granting of a referendum signified the robustness of British democracy. They argue that Madrid’s intransigence actually exposes a stunted democratic pedigree. Obviously, doubts about the quality of Spanish democracy threaten to seriously undermine the legitimacy of the post-Francoist order.

Certainly, questions over the sanctity of the 1978 constitution have been pivotal in the standoff between Madrid and Barcelona. In November 2015, the Generalitat voted to begin ‘the process toward the creation of an independent Catalan state in the form of a republic’, honouring the outcome of a disputed ‘referendum’ held exactly a year before. Spain’s constitutional court has consistently ruled this step to be invalid. Similarly, within hours of Nicola Sturgeon’s announcement on 13 March 2017, Alfonso Dastis, Spain’s Foreign Minister, was quick to echo Rajoy’s caveat in 2014 that an independent Scotland would not be guaranteed automatic entry to the EU.

Brexit has exacerbated the great divisions within the Union of 1707. Another Union across the water is the catalyst of an existential crisis agitated by the outcome of 23 June 2016. For the SNP, Brexit has become a magic bullet aimed at the realisation of their most enduring ambition. Unlike the republicanism espoused by several Catalan parties, however, the SNP’s previous post-independence blueprints reveal the pusillanimity of their vision.

In 2002, the SNP drafted a constitution for a sovereign Scotland, pledging to stage a referendum on the future of the monarchy soon after achieving independence. A commitment to retaining Elizabeth II as head of state was enshrined in the SNP’s White Paper a year before the 2014 vote. Brexit may finally encourage the party to make a clean break by jettisoning that most tangible symbol of the Union it seeks to quit: the Crown.

Understandably, the situation is extremely fluid and the trajectory uncertain. Constitutional norms are being wrangled. This was demonstrated in the recent Supreme Court case over the UK Parliament’s right to authorize the triggering of Article 50 against the British Government’s impulse to invoke the royal prerogative. Such changeability is a boon to would-be proponents of institutional and state reform.

Understandably, the situation is extremely fluid and the trajectory uncertain. Constitutional norms are being wrangled.


Comparatively, it is a nightmare for unionists like Theresa May, whose premiership will be overshadowed by Brexit. Upon entering Downing Street in July 2016, she staked her appointment by the Queen on conserving the ‘precious, precious bond between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland’. Among her slogans has been the vow of a ‘red, white and blue Brexit’. This sentiment panders to an isolationist lobby that equates Brexit with ‘liberation’. In the worst-case scenario, Francoist Spain offers a model of a nationalist chimera frozen out of the European narrative.

The Scottish Parliament’s majority-decision to seek a second independence referendum is highly likely to be rejected by Westminster. As she signed the letter triggering Article 50, May called on Britons to put differences aside and unite behind Brexit. She must realise this is pure fantasy. Likewise, Sturgeon is banking on confirmation of the obstinacy, of which she has long accused May. Historian, Norman Davies, believes this is a trait fundamental to all separatist movements – the exploitation of ‘any slight, real or imagined, contemporary or historical, that they can use to batter their perceived oppressor’.

Davies has long predicted the ‘inevitable’ breakup of the UK: a process he argues began in 1922 with the creation of the Irish Free State. His reasoning points to the erosion of bastions of ‘Britishness’ like the monarchy, the empire and the Westminster Parliament, as well as the disproportionate influence of England within the Union. Moreover, he believes the vitality of the EU has provided fertile ground in which to cultivate separatist movements. Yet, while Europe has become a bargaining chip in the SNP’s game plan ahead of Brexit negotiations, the past decade of economic turmoil across the EU appears to have destabilized the political balance within Spain.

The climax to Barcelona’s opening ceremony took the form of a child, clad in a blue t-shirt emblazoned with the twelve golden stars of the EU, leading a choir in a stirring rendition of the final movement of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony: Europe’s anthem. Just five months after the signing of the Maastricht Treaty, this Olympian display of Europhilia affirmed Spain’s synergy with the principle of ‘ever closer union’. Such overtures were conspicuous by their absence at London 2012.

We don’t yet know whether the fraying of these old unions will strengthen the supranational one, which has, for better or worse, cast the destinies of both in a state of flux. What the past sixty years has shown is that individuals have assimilated multiple identities with ease – embracing their regional, national and supranational distinctions all at once.

Nonetheless, for many others these demonyms are inherently irreconcilable. As current events indicate, the UK, Spain and their component parts will dominate the future history of this period in the European Union’s evolution.


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