'Breakaway' states pose big challenges for Europe

Wed, Oct 17, 2012, 01:00

OPINION:ON THE same day British prime minister David Cameron signed an agreement with the Scottish first minister, Alex Salmond, on the terms of a referendum on Scottish independence, in which they will be on opposite sides, a party that favours the break-up of the Belgian kingdom won a resounding victory in local elections in Flanders.

Meanwhile, in Spain, a party in power in Barcelona that favours Catalonia ultimately becoming completely independent has called a general election. It is unhappy that the beleaguered government in Madrid, which has plenty of other problems on its plate, will not give Catalonia the right to raise and spend its own taxes.

If the pro-independence party wins the Catalan general election, it will press for measures eventually leading either to complete Catalan independence or to a total clash with the government in Madrid.

Spain’s central government takes a firm line against all secessionism anywhere because it could create precedent that might lead to the decomposition of the entire country.

In Belgium, the biggest city in the country, Antwerp, will have a new mayor, Bart de Wever, who is the leader of a party that favours the establishment, by peaceful means, of a republic of Flanders, splitting the kingdom of Belgium.

He obtained almost 38 per cent of the vote in Antwerp, and another pro-independence party, the Vlaams Belang, got a further 10 per cent.

Mr De Wever’s party obtained strong support in other parts of Flanders, especially in the east, but not as much as it got in Belgium’s biggest city.

This raises really difficult issues for the European Union.

If an area were to secede from an existing EU member, that area would thereby cease to be a member of the EU.

It would have to apply anew to become an EU member state, as if it had never been a member of the union and was applying for the first time.

A state can be admitted to the EU only if all existing members agree. The more countries there are in the EU, the harder it becomes to achieve unanimity of all states.

Turkey’s case illustrates the problem well, so does de Gaulle’s veto of UK membership of the Common Market in the 1960s.

Some countries have a rooted objection, on principle, to any splitting of existing countries, often because they do not want to set a precedent that might encourage the secession of parts of their own countries.

For instance, on the basis of this principle, a number of EU countries – Spain, Romania, Slovakia and Greece – have refused to recognise the secession of Kosovo from Serbia and refuse to have anything to do with the new state of Kosovo.

Let us suppose that Scotland, Catalonia or Flanders succeed in becoming independent and want to stay in the EU; they will have to apply to join and will not be readmitted to the EU unless Spain, Romania, Slovakia, and Greece all agree – and overcome their current objections of principle – to secessions.

Meanwhile, as if things were not complicated enough, the Conservative component of the UK government is contemplating a renegotiation of the terms of UK membership of the EU and then holding a referendum on the result.

This raises the obvious question, now that the Conservative UK prime minister has accepted in principle the right of Scotland to make an independent sovereign decision, of what would happen if in the referendum Scotland favoured staying in the EU while the rest of the UK voted to leave, or vice versa?

Europe is facing an economic crisis. This crisis is causing stress in the vicinity of long-buried fault lines. The blame game is in full swing.

But none of this stress and none of this blame solves the economic crisis for families throughout Europe.

The European Union’s political system makes some decisions by majority vote, but, because it is a union of sovereign states, it has to make many decisions by unanimous agreement.

This is already causing a lot of problems in dealing sufficiently speedily with the economic, banking and fiscal crises that now afflict us.

However difficult this may be to accept in Scotland, Flanders or Catalonia, it might be wiser to agree to sort out the economic crisis first and then deal with issues of separation, and/or of rearranging national boundaries, later.

But that is not an easy proposition to sell to an impatient and proud public opinion – as John Redmond, who faced the same dilemma in Ireland in 1914, could tell us, if he were alive.

John Bruton is a former taoiseach and former leader of Fine Gael. He is currently chairman of the IFSC.

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