Alfons López Tena was a member of the Catalan Parliament from 2010 to 2012, specializing in clean governance and Catalan independence issues. He gave us permission to run this op-ed.
As any seismic event the British people vote to leave the European Union begins to unfold growing cracks and tsunami-warning ripples that make nowadays predictions anyone’s guess, with plenty of unintended outcomes affecting other countries as well.
One of them is the very existence of some of the directly involved states: Will the United Kingdom remain united, or shall Brexit lead to an independent Scotland inside the EU? Will the Kingdom of Spain remain united, or shall Catalonia raise itself to independence too?
In fact, it all depends on which will the terms and conditions be of Britain’s access to the European single market — since even the hardest-nose Brexiteers want to keep it going as usual — after negotiations that could take years. The only precedents are Greenland, a part of Denmark which voted to leave in 1982 and left in 1985; and Algeria, which left upon independence in 1962, having been fully inside the European Communities since it was not legally a colony but a full-fledged part of France until then.
Under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the terms of Britain’s withdrawal would be agreed by the other 27 EU countries during a two-year timetable, without neither a British say nor vote and under a haunting specter of disintegration’s spell to conjure by the EU making Britain’s exit a scaring option for others, preventing it from reaping the benefits of EU membership once it has left in order to deter other wobbly member states to follow this path.
The EU’s favoured response to most crises — muddling through — will no longer be an option. It won’t be an option either the illusion Britons were promised of having their cake and eating it too — all the EU’s benefits with none of its obligations.
The kind of deal offered could be:
- Norwegian option: To be a member of the European Economic Area (EEA), in return for which it is required to contribute to the EU’s budget ( as much as Britain contributes now per capita ) and allow the free movement of people.
- Swiss option: Less submission to EU rules but also more limited access to the single market, and free movement of people.
- Canadian option: To pay virtually no tariffs, no contribution to the EU, no free movement of labour, but it wouldn’t cover banking and financial services.
- Algerian option: To opt out entirely, trading with the EU under the rules of the World Trade Organisation like America, Mexico or any other country.
As a matter of fact, there are only two options, and both are bad: accept tariffs on trade with the EU through World Trade Organisation Rules, which will harm nearly half of the British trade and hollow out London as a financial hub; or accept the EU’s rules without any say over their content.
At the same time, Britain must negotiate new trade deals, cross-border business, financial regulations, and other agreements, to replace the EU ones with the rest of the world, in order to fill the gap left by those it had abandoned. Parliament will have to re-write British law to take out all the stuff put there by the EU, to copy or scrap sixty years of legislation, 12,295 EU regulations embedded into British law, making them anew — a Jeffersonian dream gone mad.
A gargantuan, daunting, overwhelming task indeed, which aftermath will strain to the limit the Scottish people’s already battered will to remain in the UK. One thing is certain: as much as Britain loses access to the European market, as much the 45% of Scots that voted for independence in 2014 will likely increase in order to keep it, but it’s a difficult trade-off since Scotland sells more to England than to the EU, and its free access to the English market will be jeopardized if Scotland is not accepted as an ongoing EU member covered by their new deals with Britain, if any.
Catalonia’s independence prospects are darker after Brexit, though, because it strengthens Spain as a reliable UE partner which the other member states won’t likely press to force it to allow the Catalans to vote if they want to be independent, and that’s the only outcome Catalans nowadays have chosen to play with.
It’s a ironic twist, since the deterrence of any more breakdown that implementing Brexit will crank up is likely to scare both Scots and Catalans into a resigned acceptance of the status quo to avoid the risks and uncertainties that independence, agreed or not, unfolds.
The Brexit referendum offered a choice between a clear alternative — remaining in the EU according to existing and known rules — or leaving it in favour of some unspecified, unknowable alternative.
If the British people’s choice of this whole bundle of unknown unknowns goes as awry as it looks like, poor appetite will Scots and Catalans have to break away from Britain and Spain amidst the growing turmoil that the fear of losing the free access to the markets they now enjoy would entail.
Ideological, national, freedom-wish considerations sometimes trump economic ones. It has happened in Britain but it remains to be seen if Scotland and Catalonia have the stubborn willpower needed to overcome all the fears that Brexit’s aftermath triggers, since withdrawal comes at a price.
A lot of wishful thinking over independence as a smooth stroll comes to an end — Scotland and Catalonia cannot have their cake and eat it too, as Brexit will show with a vengeance that will make everybody involved fully aware.
A choice is needed, and it’s a painful choice either way.
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