MADRID—When Crimeans voted to secede from Ukraine and join Russia—under the watchful gaze of Russian troops—some Spaniards viewed the drama through the lens of a conflict much closer to home.
Spain’s Foreign Minister José Manuel García-Margallo said „the parallelism is absolute“ between Crimea and Catalonia, the wealthy industrial region that has scheduled a nonbinding referendum on independence from Spain for November.
Sunday’s referendum in Crimea and the one planned in Catalonia each violates its nation’s constitution, Mr. Garcia-Margallo said Monday, and thus „by definition violates international law.“
Catalan officials ridiculed his attempt to tar Catalonia with the Crimean brush. Catalans have mobilized peacefully for independence without outside assistance, their regional leaders say. Crimea’s referendum unfolded only after Russian President Vladimir Putin moved forces into Crimea, home to a large ethnic-Russian population.
In pockets of secessionist tension throughout Europe, the Crimean referendum has been impossible to ignore, even though the lessons being drawn from it are contradictory and often a result of the observer’s politics.
Votes on independence are slated for Catalonia and Scotland later this year, while other separatist movements are simmering on low fire in Italy and Belgium.
The festering Catalan question has long colored how Spain views secessionist movements elsewhere. It is a big part of why Spain, along with just four other European Union members, hasn’t recognized Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence from Serbia, which itself was once part of Yugoslavia.
Concerned by claims by some Russians that the Crimea vote was similar to the one scheduled for September in Scotland, the U.K.’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office on Monday released a graphic that set out the differences.
In contrast to the Crimea vote, it said, the referendum in Scotland has been agreed to by all parties, and all parties have been free to make their case. In Parliament on Tuesday, U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague, a member of the Conservative Party, which favors maintenance of the union, said the Crimea vote was „at the opposite end of any scale from the referendum that will take place in Scotland.“
Some European separatists, however, were willing embrace the Crimean vote, crafting arguments on the broader principle of the right to self-determination. „Viva the referendum in Crimea and the freedom of citizens,“ said Matteo Salvini, head of the Northern League, which campaigns for an independent northern Italy.
Secessionists have been largely relegated to Italy’s political fringe. Still, as events in Crimea are playing out this week, residents in the northern region of Veneto, whose capital is Venice, are conducting an online referendum on secession from Italy.
Belgium’s far-right Flemish separatist party, Vlaams Belang, which draws support from residents of the wealthier Dutch-speaking north who favor a split with French-speaking Wallonia, sent observers to Crimea for the referendum. One of them tweeted „believe me, the Russians love their children too,“ while posting pictures of himself posing with Cossacks by the Black Sea.
At least one Catalan served as a Crimean observer, but most Catalans seemed worried that Crimea was giving independence referendums a bad name.
„We want to vote in an atmosphere of peace, festive and calm, and the images from Crimea are completely the opposite of the spirit we are promoting,“ said the Catalan regional president, Artur Mas.
That didn’t stop a leader of the conservative Popular Party, which governs Spain and opposes Catalonia’s independence bid, from accusing the Catalan government of having „adopted the Crimean way.“
Catalan government spokesman Francesc Homs said Wednesday the government in Madrid „was making a fool of itself.“
One Catalan columnist made a joke of the comparison, sarcastically saying he had observed the presence of paramilitary troops and a heretofore unknown oil pipeline in Barcelona.
For all the flurry of independence referendums this year, breakaway regions were a bigger issue in the 1990s, with the fragmentation of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, said Jason Sorens, a lecturer in government at Dartmouth College.
Historical evidence doesn’t suggest „that secession is contagious and spreads across borders,“ Mr. Sorens said. Rather, he said, secession seems to be driven by circumstances that evolve organically within a country or region.
„It’s more or less an accident that this happened in Crimea,“ in a year when other European referendums are on the agenda, he said.
If Crimea has any relevance for Catalonia, some analysts said, it is in highlighting the challenge Catalans face in trying to gain independence with backing from neither Spain’s government nor neighboring ones.
„Crimea has been able to leave Ukraine because it was supported by another foreign power,“ said Andrew Dowling, a specialist in Catalan and Spanish history at Cardiff University. „Catalonia doesn’t have a patron, or anyone lobbying for it.“
Catalans have launched a diplomatic roadshow aimed primarily at academics in other countries, but the push is in its infancy. Meanwhile, European Union officials have warned Catalonia and Scotland that either would have to reapply for EU membership if it became independent.
—Paul Hannon, Gilles Castonguay and Frances Robinson contributed to this article.
Lesen in Wall Street Journal