Can Europe Make It?

Independence movements are riding a wave of optimism in Europe

By the time this article is published, SNP membership numbers will have reached 100,000. As president of the European Free Alliance, I have never felt more optimistic about the potential success of independence parties in Europe.

François Alfonsi
9 December 2014
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Nicola Sturgeon speaks the SNP conference in Perth. Flickr/Simon Kindlen. Some rights reserved.

SNP Conference in Perth

85,884: the figure is posted on the giant screen behind the stage at Perth Conference Centre, much too small this year to accommodate the crowd of delegates sent by the different sections of the SNP from all over Scotland.

It’s the number of members registered by the party as the final session begins, the meeting where its new leader, Nicola Sturgeon, just elected, will give the closing address. Barely a year ago, membership stood at 18,000, and campaigners had set themselves the target of reaching 30,000 within twelve months. There are now three times as many.

A five-fold rise in members in a year, almost three times as many as the target: these figures are so striking that they bear witness to a real political revolution in Scotland. The impetus created by the referendum on 18 September is quite simply colossal, despite the victory for ‘no’. The SNP no longer has a credible rival for political leadership in Edinburgh, and it is even positioning itself as a key party for the future majority in power in Westminster after the general election to be held next May.

These parliamentary elections have been identified by Conference as the main challenge for the SNP in 2015. The target: to obtain an absolute majority of the MPs that Scotland will send to Westminster, at least 30 of the 59, and to form, along with Plaid Cymru MPs from Wales, a swing group capable of forming - and hence of undoing! - the political majority in London. And all with a view to grasping the reforms promised by British leaders to ensure the ‘no’ victory in the referendum.

Because these promises were the key to snatching victory for the ‘no’ camp last September. Imagine that in France, Hollande, Sarkozy and Bayrou were to co-sign the same letter published on the front page of all the main newspapers to formalise promises of independence made to Corsicans! That’s exactly what the three main party leaders in Great Britain did - David Cameron for the Conservatives, Ed Miliband for the Labour Party and Nick Clegg for the Liberals, in a letter published on the front page of all the Scottish newspapers 48 hours before the vote. Never has Scotland been in such a position of strength for negotiating new powers, including tax powers.

Alex Salmond has decided to pass the reins of the party and the government to Nicola Sturgeon, announcing his intention to stand for election in May to take his place at the head of an SNP group that polls suggest might increase from 6 to 52 MPs, and to conduct negotiations on behalf of his party. And, he says, if the proposals do not match up to the promises, the referendum process will start again.

The rise of independentism was exponential throughout the campaign, accelerating during the final weeks before the vote. Paradoxically, it grew still more when the ‘no’ camp won. It gave the SNP the euphoria of victory almost as if ‘yes’ had won.

The Social SNP agenda

The Labour Party, which currently holds almost 50 Scottish MPs and from which the SNP is expecting to take virtually all its new seats, is now in the sights of the Scottish National Party’s leader. Locally, they must be “picked off”: Nicola Sturgeon is forcing the issue, announcing a new social direction for the Scottish government which she will take over within the week. The priority will be the health system and the fight against poverty, where she has announced new financial resources. Families will receive greater help with child care, with a doubling of current provision in five years. The SNP sees itself as the UK’s counter-reference for social policy, aiming to embody the rejection of David Cameron’s austerity policy.

In terms of the Westminster government, the SNP conference said that it was ready “to defeat Cameron”, and hence to support the Labour Party to return to power in London. Nicola Sturgeon delivered a simple and terribly effective speech aiming to attract Labour voters who are drifting towards the independentist idea: SNP MPs will support Labour in London, so there is no point in voting for them in Scotland in order to keep Cameron and the right from power. In June 2015, the SNP, in alliance with Plaid Cymru, will therefore have fresh trump cards in hand to force the recognition of the rights of the Scottish people.

EFA delegation in the SNP Conference

The EFA, of which the SNP is a key member, took its rightful place during the Perth Conference. Plaid Cymru, the SNP’s Welsh sister party, was fully engaged in the debates and the media coverage, and its leader Leanne Wood received repeated ovations from activists. The SNP and Plaid Cymru will adopt a common strategy in the coming months, and this represents a real advance in cooperation between EFA member parties in Great Britain.

One of the main fringe meetings at Conference was devoted to the EFA. I myself was present, representing Corsica and in my capacity of President of the European party, as were treasurer Lorena Lopez de Lacalle of the Basque Country and secretary general Jordi Solé, leader of the ERC in Catalonia.

This meeting was a success. It was attended by 250 delegates and under the chairmanship of SNP President and MEP Ian Hudghton and Fiona Hyslop, minister for culture and international relations, it strengthened the visibility of the EFA. Debates obviously focused on the events in Catalonia, which Scottish activists were following closely.

These concomitant struggles towards self-determination echo each other and resonate all the more powerfully at the European level. This internationalisation is vital to sustain pressure on the British government and to help the Scots in their quest for independence in Europe.

The debate led by the Scots and the Catalans, closely followed by the forty parties in the EFA, will rebound on the European stage, before Parliament, before the new European Commission and throughout the press in Europe and beyond. Scotland and Catalonia do not only pose a problem of democracy in the United Kingdom and Spain.  All Europe is concerned, and all Europe must accept the democratic rights of peoples, starting with the right to self-determination.

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EFA delegation at the 80th SNP conference in Perth with François Alfonsi, Jordi Solé (sec-Gen), Lorena Lopez de Lacalle (Vice-president) and SNP President and MEP Ian Hudghton and Fiona Hyslop SNP Cabinet member.

The right to self-determination in Europe.

The combination of events in Scotland and in Catalonia has had a considerable impact in Europe. The right to self-determination, the freedom to decide, has been claimed by two European peoples who have hitherto had no voice on the European stage. By freeing their political expression, by challenging the States by democratic means, Scots and Catalans have opened a breach. It is not one that will soon be closed.

The force of these moves towards self-determination lies above all in the capacity for mobilisation which is being developed in the territories concerned. And this needs consideration in the longer term, beyond the moment of decisive mobilisation, and all the work that needs to be carried out to build the foundations must be assessed.

The national movements in Scotland and Catalonia have been on the top rung of the institutional ladder for many years. They manage high-performance administrations in the service of their citizens, and they organise a dynamic and structured civil society around the struggle for identity. Their leaders are experienced in managing public affairs and they have demonstrated their capacity to take on the burden of the society that they want to build. It is this strong political and societal infrastructure which forms the hidden part of the iceberg, the crucial part which, when the day comes, will provide the necessary basis for developing the decisive power relationship with the State.

Scotland was thus able to force a referendum because, under the devolved system achieved in 1997, Alex Salmond’s nationalist government, strengthened by its economic and social achievements for the benefit of the Scottish people in its first term, won an absolute majority of seats at the Scottish Assembly elections of 2011. In September 2012 David Cameron was obliged to agree to the referendum which was the SNP’s key policy during its election campaign.

However, support for independence at that point remained weak, 20 - 25% according to the polls, a figure which was rapidly overtaken and which rose to 45 % by 18 September, thanks to the extraordinary work carried out at every level of Scottish society, to the extent that the “no” win was transformed into a victory for the SNP, leaving the Scottish nationalists more than ever the masters of the field.

In Catalonia, the position of strength of Catalan nationalists could be measured by the length of the queues at the polling stations that were “improvised” as a result of the decision of the Spanish constitutional court to outlaw an official referendum.

But this response from Catalan society has been many years in the making.

The idea of consulting the Catalan people has been taking root for five years, since September 2009 when for the first time one of Catalonia’s 947 municipalities, Arenys del Munt, population 8,000, organised a “citizens’ referendum” on Catalan independence. No fewer than 166 other small and medium-sized municipalities followed suit in December 2009. Between March 2010 and April 2011, five other “referendum days” were organised to cover all the municipalities of Catalonia up to the largest, Barcelona. In total 800,000 Catalan supported these ad hoc initiatives, making it possible to set up a volunteer system which showed its mettle on Sunday 9 November 2014.

The fight for the freedom of a people is a long struggle. In 50 years of building the European Union, no stateless nation has managed to impose its right to self-determination. And these last three months have been a historic time for Europe. Catalans and Scots have not yet reached the end of their journeys, but each of them has now reached a point of no return.

The engines of the European Free Alliance which are the Scottish National Party and Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya have taken a decisive step along a new road. All the stateless nations of Europe are encouraged by their success. Each, with its own individual political situation, has gained impetus on its own path towards empowerment in the context of the European project. And Corsica is part of this.

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