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Catalonia and Scotland: Independence via incompetence

Within a few years, it's entirely possible that Europe will have two new sovereign nations. Their birth will be the result not of proud liberation movements overcoming oppression or post-colonial struggles to build independent economies and societies. No, these new states will come into being, if they do, entirely as a product of the political incompetence of the people who currently govern the countries of which they're part.

The first is Scotland, whose national-liberation movement has rarely been much more than a comic sideshow. Scots are an integral and often dominant part of the British community; their nationalist movement has only flourished as a scheme to gain greater favour and largesse from London, and has gained parliamentary seats largely as a result of the Scottish National Party having been moderate and competent in domestic governance – not as a result of any genuine spirit of national independence (that movement's overwhelming loss in the 2014 secession referendum, and its subsequent collapse in electoral polls, demonstrated this).

Any serious Scottish desire to secede has sprung not from logic or national sentiment, but from the cruelty, neglect or damaging misguidedness of the parties that govern in Westminster. As a result of Prime Minister Theresa May's extraordinary mismanagement of Britain and its place in the world, that movement is on the verge of becoming one that most Scots, and most of the wider world, would approve.

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If her attempts to pull Britain out of the European Union ever do succeed, a near-immediate outcome will be a Scottish secession referendum that all of us ought to support. Scotland will rightly see itself as being more a part of Europe than a part of Britain, if England chooses to isolate Britain from the world. The best hope for the Scots would be Ms. May's failure to achieve Brexit.

The second, more dire case is Catalonia. Secession has never, until this week, been plausible in this prosperous Spanish region. Its long-standing and sometimes violent independence movement has been part of the background noise of Spain for decades, but without much credibility.

It has succeeded in winning autonomous status and linguistic rights for Catalonia, similar to those enjoyed in Quebec. But national independence has never made sense. For one thing, Catalans are a minority in Catalonia: According to the region's Catalan-nationalist government, only 37 per cent of its residents speak Catalan; 47 per cent mainly speak, and consider themselves, Spanish. Even if all of those Catalans support independence, if they ever won it they'd be dominating a voiceless majority against their will. Their best hope is to force non-Catalans to flee, which has happened in significant numbers in recent years, but is no way to build a community.

And Catalans are great beneficiaries, not victims, of the Spanish state (at least since fascism ended in the 1970s). They are the furthest thing from an oppressed minority: They are a wealthy and dominant community who have outsized influence in the Spanish economy, culture and politics (not to mention soccer). Catalonia seceding from Spain would be like Toronto seceding from Canada – or, rather, it would be like the Annex and Rosedale neighbourhoods forcing Toronto to secede against the will of Scarborough and North York.

This week's pseudo-referendum, which even two-thirds of Catalans did not think should have more influence than an opinion poll, should have been a forgotten footnote, like similar votes that took place in 2009, 2011 and 2014. It was never going to be a legally recognizable vote.

But Mariano Rajoy, Spain's right-wing Prime Minister, changed that outcome, and the world's sympathies, by turning Spain itself into the problem. By sending in huge numbers of troops to crush the informal vote, and standing by as they sent hundreds of people to hospital in a carnival of brutality, Mr. Rajoy has created a case for secession where none existed.

"Rajoy has turned what should have been just another unofficial poll that went largely unnoticed outside the country into a referendum on having a referendum that has shocked the world," the Catalan filmmaker Irene Baqué wrote on Tuesday. It changed her sympathies, and Europe's.

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If Catalonia eventually becomes recognized as a country by Europe and the wider world, it will be purely the result of Mr. Rajoy's incompetence. Catalonia and Scotland will have been driven into the EU's hands by shambolic national governments. He and Theresa May might enjoy a certain historic infamy together, as the founders of new countries born entirely to defy them.

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About the Author
International-Affairs Columnist

Doug Saunders writes the Globe and Mail's international-affairs column. He has been a writer with the Globe since 1995, and has extensive experience as a foreign correspondent, having run the Globe's foreign bureaus in Los Angeles and London.He was born in Hamilton, Ontario, and educated in Toronto. More

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