David Cameron’s reputation may have plummeted in the UK after he resigned as prime minister following last year’s Brexit vote, but he remains surprisingly popular in at least one corner of Europe.
The former Conservative leader’s decision to allow a referendum on Scottish independence in 2014 is held up as an example of how a central government can negotiate with a devolved authority on constitutional matters in a dignified way.
For pro-independence Catalans used to dealing with an intransigent Spanish government in Madrid, Cameron appears a model of reason.
On October 1, registered voters in Catalonia are due go to the polls to decide whether the region should break away from the rest of Spain. But that’s where the similarities to the Scottish referendum of three years ago end.
The hugely controversial vote was called by the Catalan assembly - where a majority of representatives are pro-independence - and has not been officially sanctioned by the Spanish government.
The Madrid authorities are so firmly opposed to the referendum there are serious doubts as to whether it will take place at all. Catalonia’s public prosecutor has been ordered to seize all ballot papers and promotional material ahead of October 1 - with those who resist facing arrest. More than 100 local mayors have already been threatened with prosecution.
Yet the Catalan government insists the vote will proceed.
The Cameron effect
Daniel Cetrà, a research fellow for the Centre on Constitutional Change at the University of Edinburgh, has followed closely both the Scottish and Catalan independence campaigns in recent years. Originally from Barcelona, he moved to Scotland to study in 2010.
“I sometimes tell my colleagues that David Cameron is an unlikely hero in Catalonia,” he explains. “He’s seen as being reasonable for agreeing to negotiate with the Scottish Government.
“In 2014, the Scottish referendum was talked about on a daily basis by Catalan politicians. Now, people don’t talk about Scotland explicitly. It’s more in the back of people’s minds that there are other ways to solve these sort of political and legal conflicts.
“In Catalonia, the focus is on achieving a negotiated referendum. It is the main item on the political agenda. Exercising self-determination is what the Catalan movement has been fighting for in recent years. Not so much independence itself - but having the right to conduct a proper campaign. In that sense, Scotland remains a precedent regardless of the outcome.”
Support for a referendum
Opinion polls in Catalonia have consistently found between 70 and 80 per cent of voters support a referendum - if it has the approval of both devolved and central governments. Support for a unilateral referendum - like the one on October 1 - is around 40 per cent.
Support for independence itself is around 45 per cent.
“Despite the No side having the advantage in the polls, Madrid will not sanction a vote as it would be unconstitutional,” Cetrà says. “Unlike the UK, Spain has a written constitution. Article two of the constitution enshrines the indivisibility of the Spanish nation. It also states the sovereignty of Spain belongs to Spaniards as a whole. There is a very different understanding of the political union in Spain compared to the UK.
“I know there are contested interpretations, but the UK is a union of different nations. This is not the case in Spain.
“It is a political position. Strategically, Madrid thinks if it does not allow the referendum to take place the independence movement will fade away and create tensions between supporters of a unilateral vote and moderates.”
Will the referendum take place at all?
“We don’t know yet,” adds Cetrà. “The Catalan government seems determined to hold the referendum. It much depends on the extent to which the Spanish government wants to get their hands dirty to prevent it from taking place. The most exceptional method would be using Article 155 of the Spanish constitution to suspend Catalonia’s political autonomy - but that would be very extreme and probably counterproductive.”