Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

Nationalist movements aim to learn from Catalonia's bid for independence

Independence supporters march during a demonstration downtown Barcelona, Spain, Monday, Oct. 2, 2017.

Felipe Dana/AP

Nationalist movements from across Europe and Canada are rallying around Catalonia's bid for independence and hoping to learn some lessons from Sunday's referendum to help advance their own causes.

A group of politicians from more than 35 nationalist and populist parties travelled to Barcelona last weekend to demonstrate solidarity with Catalonia and follow the referendum which saw overwhelming support for independence. The foreign politicians visited polling stations, met with Catalan government officials and voiced high praise for the outcome.

The group was made up of an eclectic mix of staunch nationalist movements such as the Parti Québécois, Scottish Nationalist Party, Sinn Fein, Plaid Cymru of Wales and Belgium's New Flemish Alliance, which wants to create a Flemish Republic. Also mixed in were members of parliament from Denmark's anti-immigration Danish Peoples' Party, populists Blue Reform from Finland and Birgitta Jonsdottir, a co-founder of Iceland's Pirate Party who worked with Julian Assange, the Wikileaks founder who has been a strong proponent of Catalan independence.

Story continues below advertisement

Also: Catalonia, Spain at standoff after violence mars referendum

They came together Sunday night and released a report on the referendum that praised the Catalan independence movement and sharply criticized the Spanish government for its "brutal" tactics in trying to suppress the referendum. Madrid has long declared the referendum illegal, saying it violated the constitution and was undemocratic. The Spanish government sent in thousands of police to close polling stations and seize ballot boxes, causing a global outcry after police clashed with voters and injured nearly 900 people. The Catalan government said of the 2.3 million people who voted, 90 per cent backed independence. Turnout was around 42 per cent.

The outcome of the referendum should "serve as starting point for political transformation," the parliamentary group said. "We believe it has achieved, regardless of the controversy and pain it caused, a success," said Dimitrij Rupel, a former foreign minister of Slovenia, who chaired the group. He confirmed that the trip was funded by the Public Diplomacy Council of Catalonia, a public-private partnership that aims to "foster dialogue and build relationships between the citizens of Catalonia and the rest of the world."

Some of the politicians were buoyed by the global media coverage the Catalan referendum has received, saying that could help to shine a light on similar causes elsewhere. While they stressed that no two situations are alike, the fact that Catalonia managed to get so much attention by standing up to Spain has been energizing for other movements. "What it has done, it's raised awareness, and we are certainly getting that feedback from Ireland," said Trevor O'Clochartaigh a Sinn Fein member of the Irish Senate. Sinn Fein has led the republican cause in Northern Ireland in the hopes that it will one day reunite with Ireland.

Scottish Nationalist Joanna Cherry, a U.K. member of Parliament, dismissed Spain's argument that the vote violated the Spanish constitution which says that only the national parliament can call this kind of referendum. She said constitutions must respect minority rights and the situation in Spain has reached an impasse. She also pointed to the breakup of the Soviet Union and said the European Union and other countries had no choice but to recognize the newly-emerging states as they declared independence. "If people want to exercise their right to self-determination you cannot stop that by beating them. You're better to reach an accommodation," she said.

The EU has been cool toward nationalist movements, stressing that the bloc's strength comes from its unity. EU officials backed Spain's position in the Catalan referendum but they have condemned the Spanish government's heavy-handed tactics and urged negotiations. The EU has also been lukewarm about Scottish independence and no European country has recognized Catalan's bid for sovereignty.

Catalan nationalists say international recognition will come once independence is a reality. And they point to inconsistencies in the EU's stance, citing Kosovo as a primary example. Most European countries recognized Kosovo as a country after it declared independence from Serbia in 2008. The EU has also signed a Stabilization and Association Agreement with Kosovo that makes the country a potential candidate for EU membership. Spain is among a handful of EU member states that has not recognized Kosovo's sovereignty, along with Greece, Romania, Slovakia and Cyprus. On Monday, a spokesman for the EU's executive branch, the European Commission, rejected the comparison between Catalonia and Kosovo. "For the commission, the situation is not comparable," said spokesman Margaritis Schinas Schinas. "For the recognition of Kosovo, there was a very specific context."

Story continues below advertisement

However, Serbia's President, Aleksandar Vucic, challenged that view and called the EU approach toward Catalonia hypocritical. "How come you've declared Kosovo's secession from Serbia legal, violating international law and the foundations of European law," Mr. Vucic said on Monday. "Those who redrew borders in the Balkans were playing with the fate of many states."

For the PQ's Stéphane Bergeron, the lesson of the Catalan referendum was the power of unity. "As a sovereigntist, I examine what happened here and try to learn from the Catalan experience because in the past Catalonia looked at Quebec as an example," he said. "We probably have some things to learn from the Catalans, their determination, their courage. It's quite inspiring."

He added that the big challenge for sovereigntists in Quebec is a lack of unity. "There is division within the movement and Catalonia has shown us that unity within the movement decides all the differences between the parties and the values and the options," he said. "This is the unity that led to what happened [Sunday], not to the violence, but to the fact that there was a referendum on independence. I think we have to learn from those kind of things from the Catalans."

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
We have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We expect to have our new commenting system, powered by Talk from the Coral Project, running on our site by the end of April, 2018. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to