Why remarks about Scotland from Spanish politicians don’t matter

Last week, Esteban Gonzalez Pons, who leads the Spanish delegation of MEPs in the European Parliament’s largest political grouping, said First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s demands for Scotland to stay in the single market were “impossible”.

The comments are the latest in an intermittent and sporadic series of remarks from members of the Spanish Government iterating its opposition to Scotland diverging from the UK over the EU. While members of Spanish Government can voice whatever opinion they so please, there is something inherently inaccurate about these comments being taken as gospel.

Firstly, Gonzalez Pons’ comments are yet another attempt by Spanish officials to jump the gun and lock down a policy position on Scotland in what is a highly capricious and evolving situation. Brexit has not been formally engaged by the UK Government, and the administration in Scotland can, as much as the one in Madrid, be accused of declaring their barometer is the best at predicting next year’s weather (a risky game, particularly in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election and Brexit itself).

Secondly, what is seldom ever mentioned is Spain can declare a unilateral position as much as it pleases, but it ultimately works as part of a system of multilateral European consent. It might have the power to block proposals as a member of the EU, but focussing on the remarks of a handful of officials ignores the complexity of diplomacy which is often time-sensitive, contextual and subject to backroom quid pro quos.

Thirdly, it would be more accurate to say the Spanish Government has no formal policy position on Scotland beyond what’s happening in its own back garden. Spain’s relationship with its own autonomous communities is an evolving political issue, and the Spanish Government’s reactions toward Scotland regularly appear as an attempt to anticipate precedent as if it were discussing Catalonia or the Basque region.

Fourthly, it will be what happens with Gibraltar which will set the tone for what happens with Scotland and not the reverse. Although Gonzalez Pons said that “If Spain agrees a special deal for Scotland after Brexit, Spain has to negotiate a special position for Gibraltar and we accept that Gibraltar could be part of the single market”, he again misses the point. In three, five or ten years the peninsula might be a Spanish concession in a Brexit package that also sees numerous benefits to Spain. The point is no-one knows and is unlikely to know for some time.

As ever, reacting to thunder before one feels the rain is never a good idea, certainly before Brexit has even been formally instigated.