This is already shaping up to be a defining year for independence movements in Europe. Aside from Scotland, separatist pressures are testing the resilience of the state in the Austria, Belgium, France, Italy, and Spain. Some of these movements seek unity with co-nationals in a neighboring state; others want a state of their own but are tactically flexible enough to settle, in the near term, for something short of full independence. All draw inspiration from the knowledge that, in the past hundred years, the map of Europe has been anything but fixed.
The Basque Country, Catalonia, and Valencia are Spain’s independence headaches. General Francisco Franco is considered responsible for the growth of separatist sentiments in the northern provinces of Álava, Biscay, and Gipuzkoa (generally known as the Basque Country), and the 1959 establishment of the ETA. Since the 1960s, these provinces have been given broader powers than other Spanish regions and have succeeded in having Basque recognized as an official language. Despite a generous devolution deal, two million Basques continue to advocate for secession from Spain and a merger with the Basque-populated part of France.
With a population of 7.5 million, Catalonia is one of the richest autonomous communities. It has a distinctive language and culture, as well as better public services and higher education levels than Spain’s other autonomous regions. Separatists claim that their autonomy should be strengthened, and they argue that a much larger share of the taxes collected in Catalonia should stay there. In Valencia, known as the “California of Spain” for its gorgeous Mediterranean coastline and modern architecture, separatist sentiments are becoming stronger in spite of the region being granted greater autonomy in 2007.
Under Spain’s 1978 Constitution, regions are permitted autonomy but have no legal right to full independence. Opinion polls indicate that between 75 and 80 percent of both Catalans and Basques want an independence referendum, and that about half of those asking for a referendum would vote in favor of secession. These regions might, however, have to settle for an updated model of regional autonomy, which would cause support for secession to drop by as much as 10 percent. Opinion polls, however, remain unclear on whether the Spanish Right, now in power in Madrid, and historically associated with centralization, would even consider striking a deal.
France has a long history of resisting separatist and extremist movements on its territory, above all in the Mediterranean island of Corsica. Drawing on a long tradition of lawlessness and resentment of outside interference, the Corsican Nationalist Union and the Movement for Self-Determination used a campaign of shootings and bombings to destabilize central authority and broaden the island’s autonomy—and it has done all this despite polls that have consistently shown that most of the island’s 260,000 inhabitants wish to remain part of France. In 2001, the French parliament passed the Autonomy Bill, which granted the island’s regional assembly the right to amend some national legislation to better suit the island’s needs, and made the Corsican language part of the curriculum in all schools. The Autonomy Bill was the most ambitious in a series of French government efforts to stem separatist violence, which has been a part of Corsican life since the mid-1970s. However, violence has increased again following the French Constitutional Council’s refusal to recognize the existence of the Corsican nation because doing so would contradict the French Constitution.
In Italy, the Südtirol question has been the source of bitter rivalry between Austria and Italy. An agreement was reached in the 1970s when this rich, northern Alpine region, which was annexed to Italy after the First World War, was given considerable self-rule. The South Tyrolean Freedom Party, which never accepted the 1970s decision, wants the region to secede and merge with Austria. It is agitating for a referendum on self-determination as early as 2015. Yet even though ethnic Germans account for two-thirds of Südtirol’s 510,000 people and the South Tyrolean People’s Party (SVP) has swept every election since 1948, Luis Durnwalder, the province’s SVP Governor since 1989, scorns talk of secession and argues that Südtirol’s autonomous status inside Italy serves it perfectly well. Separatism, however, seems to be gaining traction, especially among young people and the regional media, where references to and discussions about the potential impact of the Scottish referendum on regionalist fervor in Italy have increased dramatically.
Veneto, like Südtirol, is one of the wealthiest regions in Italy and has its own culture and history of previous statehood. When the post-war constitution of Italy was created in 1948, many of the region’s residents were frustrated not to have been given an autonomous special statute. A regionalist movement, the Liga Veneta, emerged in the 1970s demanding self-determination. For the past 25 years, the Liga Veneta has been maneuvering toward independence—for instance, by joining forces with the Northern League political group to gain seats in Italy’s national parliament, and by holding an online referendum on secession in March 2014, in which 89 percent voted “yes.”
Although the online referendum has been strongly criticized as illegitimate, subsequent independent polls found that about 55 percent of Veneto’s residents did want independence. Following these findings, in June 2014 Veneto’s regional council made multiple references to Scotland as the “most important nascent republic” in Europe and an example for Veneto. It approved two bills to give the region a special autonomous statute and to regulate a formal independence referendum.
Lying 120 miles off the Italian coast, Sardinia, which had a history of semi-independence through its status in the Kingdom of Sardinia, was granted special status in the Italian constitution of 1948. This was largely due to the formidable inter-war nationalist movement, which won 36 percent of the vote in Sardinian elections in 1919. The Partito Sardo d’Azione (Psd’Az) demanded self-determination within a federal Italian state and the recognition of Sardinia’s distinctiveness. As recently as 2012, the Psd’Az called for an official referendum on independence, but the motion failed by one vote in the regional assembly. Following this setback, three new independence-seeking parties—the Partito dei Sardi, Rossomori, and Indipendentzia Repubrica de Sardigna—are trying to rewrite Sardinia’s special statute to give it more powers, despite the fact that 80 percent of the island’s population seems happy with the existing terms of Sardinia’s regional autonomy. The Partito dei Sardi has been forging ties with the Scottish National Party, and the popularity of independence referendums in Scotland, Catalonia, and Veneto might help Sardinian nationalists win approval for a plebiscite on independence.
Belgium has a federal structure, and yet it may separate into northern Flanders, whose residents speak Dutch and lean toward the Netherlands, and southern French-speaking Wallonia. This confrontation between Belgium’s two linguistic communities is rooted in the beginning of Belgium’s independent history, when the Walloons and the Flemish formed a union against the Netherlands. Having once united in the name of freedom, they have been trying to break apart for almost two centuries, mostly for economic reasons. In December 2006, a national Belgian television station, RTBF, ran a spoof report that Flanders had declared independence: Thousands of people called an emergency phone number for more information, and several Ambassadors in Brussels sent urgent messages to their national capitals before realizing that the report was a hoax. Eight years later, Flemish secession is no longer a joking matter. The New Flemish Alliance, the region’s leading nationalist party, isn’t demanding independence right now, but it is pushing for constitutional changes that will turn Belgium into a loose confederation.
Breaking up Belgium might be difficult, however. It would require an agreement on Brussels, the French-speaking capital surrounded by Flanders. Neither Walloon nor the Flemish nationalists want the other side to grab this prize; nor would a declaration calling it a freestanding European city appeal to either side. Moreover, Europe’s financial woes have shown both sides that the Belgian state still serves a useful purpose. It was government ministers and regulators, not regional leaders, who played a vital role in coordinating the rescues of the country’s largest banking groups Fortis and Dexia.
Separatist sentiments have become stronger in the Austrian provinces of Stiria and Carinthia, mostly populated by the Croatians and Slovenians. In Albania, the Albanian Greeks have become increasingly vocal in their demands for autonomy, and in Serbia, the Alliance of Vojvodina’s Magyars is demanding a referendum on secession from Serbia and a confederation with Hungary. (Hungarians now account for more than 40 percent of Vojvodina’s population.) A similar scenario is developing in Romanian Transylvania, where the Union for the Revival of Hungarian Transylvania has already held referendums on territorial autonomy in three Transylvanian districts in early 2014 for autonomy from Bucharest and to establish independent relations with Budapest.
Separatist movements across Europe see the separatist cause as another liberation movement in line with the 20th-century anti-colonial struggles of Africa and Asia. Yet the Catalans, Basques, Corsicans, Flemish, and the like are not voiceless, nor are they oppressed by their own countries. The independence of these regions is unlikely to contribute to a more egalitarian world. Pro-independence political leaders like to describe their regions’ independence processes as an accelerating train that won’t stop until it reaches Independence Station, and they downplay any risks of derailment along the way.
Passengers, however, might find that their “final destination” doesn’t match the idyllic depiction that was offered to them before they hopped onboard the train. In many cases, separatist politicians often gloss over the fact that many of the regional governments seeking independence rank at the bottom of their respective countries’ lists in terms of corruption, effectiveness, and accountability, and often struggle to pay for public services and financing their debts. Catalonia, for instance, which represents about a fifth of Spain’s gross domestic product, is also Spain’s most indebted region; it has seen its credit rating slashed by all credit agencies and has been forced to request a €5 billion credit line from the central government to cover its debts. Moreover, separatists rarely discuss the fact that in an independent Basque Country—or Catalonia, or Sudtirol for that matter—citizens would be trapped in a smaller country without enjoying any additional rights, individual liberties, or economic and cultural benefits. Any of these prospective new state entities would be more centralized than today’s Spain or Italy. Their capitals would host about half or more of their total populations, and there would not be no other cities large enough to rival or counterbalance the capitals’ influence. Existing transparency and accountability problems would be unlikely to decrease.
In democratic systems, major changes in the status quo require negotiation and persuasion. Austria, Belgium, France, Italy, and Spain are no exceptions. In these countries, the central state and its outlying nationalities and regions struggle to find a lasting formula for the distribution of power. Ad hoc political solutions have bestowed varying degrees of self-rule on different areas, imparting a lopsided and contested quality to the overall settlements. Thus, if pro-independence movements wish to change the current constitutional status quo, they need to show that those who are not particularly in favor of independence might gain, or at a minimum are unlikely to be worse off, if independence is agreed.
Unfortunately, separatists are not particularly interested in taking this approach. Rather than trying to convince others of the necessity or benefits of a change in the status quo, they are increasingly using popular sentiment to legitimize their extra-legal processes of independence. Flags, uniforms, and popular displays of nationalist fervor may be useful for enhancing visibility and gaining support, but they have also created alienation and frustration among those who do not share the separatist ideology.
Then there is the EU. Secessionists see no contradiction between the pursuit of national sovereignty and adhesion to a more closely united Europe. Opinion polls taken earlier in 2014 in Belgium, Italy, and Spain suggest that popular support for full separation would be a less attractive proposition if EU membership were in doubt. The EU’s treaties contain provisions that permit a country to join or leave. However, they are silent on whether a region detached from a “mother state” has an automatic right to EU membership.
The EU is unlikely to support moves leading to the disintegration of any member states. Pro-independence movements often point to the EU as a transnational safeguard, allowing them more easily to dispense with their nation-state affiliation. But the EU may be more concerned about any process that upsets its own delicate institutional balance, to say nothing of making it harder to gain a consensus for any new EU laws or constitutional adjustments. The EU informally hinted that any new independent region would have to apply for EU admittance as a new state. It would then have to negotiate terms with all 26 members, including the countries from which they broke away. Gaining swift re-entry might prove difficult. Having put on hold further external enlargement, the EU will not welcome an internally generated expansion.
So, what will happen after tomorrow’s vote in Scotland? Success for “Yes” will likely give strength to independence movements elsewhere. In particular, it may encourage some of the more moderate regionalist and nationalist parties seeking forms of devolution and autonomy within the state to “up” their demands to full secession. A “yes” result in Scotland may strengthen those who oppose the constitutional stipulation that France, Italy, and Spain are indivisible, and trigger a “demonstration effect”, even if many of the pro-independence movements currently lack for the foreseeable future the political momentum or popular legitimacy necessary to realize their ambitions.
A “no” vote is very likely to strengthen the arguments of those who oppose independence and may similarly show the regions that they are better together within their states, especially in these trying economic times. However, it wouldn’t likely herald the end of efforts to achieve constitutional changes, either in Scotland or elsewhere. The pro-UK parties have all promised to grant the Scottish Parliament further constitutional powers if “no” wins. If they play their cards right, independence-seeking parties in France, Italy, and Spain may use this fact to pressure their national governments to do the same, strengthening demands to devolve even more powers.