The disuniting states of Europe


Tomorrow the people of Catalonia are likely to vote for a party that promotes independence from Spain. It’s not the only separatist campaign in Europe

Rumours of the imminent break-up of the EU’s nation states are greatly exaggerated. None of the candidates for independence on this map has more than a 50 per cent chance of achieving statehood in the immediate future. Most have much less.

Yet there is no doubt that something is shifting in the EU’s geopolitics. For Irish people there is something breathtaking in the calm way Scotland may now be walking away from the same connection with Britain that we had to break in bloody conflict. It’s a prospect that, incidentally, raises new identity issues for Northern Ireland.

And in Spain the long-overdue decision by Basque pro-independence radicals to abandon terrorism has been rewarded by substantial electoral advances.

But the biggest surprise is in Catalonia. In tomorrow’s autonomous elections there a people renowned for canny common sense will almost certainly take a leap towards the completely uncharted adventure of a referendum on independence.

We can see broadly similar trends elsewhere. It can hardly be an accident that this is happening at a moment when the whole EU is up in a heap, with the financial crisis revealing frightening deficits in our political systems.

Should the prospect of new states emerging add to our anxieties? Or should we accept it as a salutary attempt to bring our political institutions more into line with deeply felt identities? The answer, I believe, is that we should look at each case on its merits and be very cautious about swallowing purist arguments from any side.

We should be sceptical when Spain talks about “the indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation” in its constitution. The nation state is a human invention and not an eternal and essential reality. What humans have joined together, humans may indeed put asunder – as long as they do it democratically.

But we should also be sceptical when Basques, Catalans or any other peoples talk about their own “national rights”, as if they were essential and absolute, and abandon solidarity with less fortunate regions.

A troubling common factor in some of the current “breakaway” regions is that they are among the most prosperous parts of their existing states. This is true of Catalonia, the Basque Country, Padania and Flanders.

These regions often stereotype their respective southern neighbour – Andalusia, Calabria, Wallonia – as lazy and irresponsible.

Ironically, in doing so they mirror the attitude of the elite EU nation states – Germany, the Netherlands and Finland, for example – which complain that their hard-earned wealth is being squandered by the Mediterranean countries and by Ireland.

It is reasonable for rich regions to insist that poor ones also pull their weight. But these complaints are often also a cover for failures at home. In the German case there is a refusal to acknowledge that their own banks played recklessly in our casino institutions. In Catalonia the nationalist government inflated a property bubble that caused many of its people’s woes.

There is also a worse danger in nationalism than simple selfishness. Blame-shifting becomes truly toxic by finding scapegoats in vulnerable groups, especially immigrants. These attitudes are rampant in some secessionist groups, especially in Flanders and Padania.

Such dangers should not, however, lead us to stigmatise all the “new” nationalisms as backward and reactionary. Very often they are motivated by a frustrated desire for respect for language and culture.

But does each language and culture need its own state? Wales has preserved its language better than Scotland has yet shows much less desire for independence.

But in many cases the refusal of self-determination may fuel the demand for independence. Europe’s big states might well find that, if they had the good manners to offer their small constituent nations a choice about their future, most of them would opt to stay put.

Catalonia: Plebiscite on independence

Tomorrow’s parliamentary elections in the Catalan autonomous region of Spain have become a plebiscite on whether to hold a referendum on independence. The economic crisis set off a wave of pro-independence sentiment.

A pro-independence parliamentary majority is likely, but the CiU party might then row back and settle for full powers over taxation. Madrid’s conservative government, and the Spanish establishment, oppose a referendum and would veto Catalan EU membership.

Basque Country: Watching Catalonia

Recent parliamentary elections in the Basque Autonomous Community gave 60 per cent of the vote to Basque nationalists, split 7:5 between moderates (PNV) and resurgent pro-independence radicals (EH Bildu). Both parties will be watching Catalonia.

Galicia: The poor relations

Its nationalist movement has always been the poor relation of its Basque and Catalan counterparts, but October’s autonomous elections showed that Galician nationalism remains a significant force.

Brittany: autonomy, not independence

With a distinct language and culture, Brittany was a natural part of the patchwork of left-wing nationalism that extended from Ireland to Corsica across late-1960s Europe.

The Union Démocratique Bretonne (UDB) seeks regional autonomy, uniting Brittany with its historical partner, Pays de La Loire, rather than independence. Paris, fiercely centralist since the revolution, resists even this demand. The UDB is now closely associated with green politics, with about 10 per cent of the local vote.

Flanders: Paralysis seems permanent

The northern, Flemish-speaking region of Belgium has long had fractious relations with southern, French-speaking Wallonia. Repeated extensions of devolution and federalisation have not eased linguistic, political and economic tension.

In 2010 the pro-independence New Flemish Alliance became Belgium’s largest party, but still appeals to only a minority. The country seems condemned to party paralysis. Terminal disintegration is likely to be extremely slow.

Venice: World’s richest country?

Indipendenza Veneta collected 20,000 signatures for secession in October. The party claims that, if cut free from Rome’s austerity programme, the Veneto could be the richest country in the world. European democracy, the nation state and capitalism all have deep roots in the Italian city republic.

Scotland: Power for Edinburgh

The Belfast Agreement established the helpful principle of multiple identities here: a citizen can be British, Irish, Northern Irish or all three. Scottish independence could complicate things, as many Northern loyalists feel a strong sense of connection to a Scotland that is essentially “British”.

The only case (so far) where an EU government has agreed to a referendum on independence (in 2014) for one of its constituent parts. Polls say only about a third of Scots currently support independence, so separation seems unlikely. If Scotland did vote itself out of the UK, London would not oppose its entry to the EU. But EU states such as Spain, Belgium and Cyprus might veto Scottish membership. The most likely outcome is “Devo Plus” – much greater political and fiscal powers for Edinburgh, within the UK.

Corsica: Resents rich outsiders

Politically French but linguistically, gastronomically and geographically closer to Italy, this island is notorious for nationalist violence, overlapping confusingly with traditions of banditry. Nationalism has been fed by resentment of wealthy outsiders. Paris is most reluctant to make political concessions.

Bavaria: Separatist stirrings

In this German region, bigger and richer than many independent countries, anger at “subsidising” feckless Mediterranean countries (and Ireland) has turned into questioning why so much Bavarian tax goes to assist poorer lander. But don’t hold your breath.

Padania: Comeback is possible

A very new “nation” that first seemed comic, then deadly serious, and abruptly descended into black farce, in just two decades. But a comeback for Padanian nationalism is possible, given the depth of Italy’s economic and political crisis.

Ones that got away: Divorce by consent

Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia Czech Republic and Slovakia. the break-up of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s led to the re-emergence of former nation states. The three Baltic republics were to the forefront of the struggle for independence and democracy. There were tense confrontations and some loss of life, but Moscow relinquished control in 1991. Czechoslovakia split up without bloodshed (the “velvet divorce”) in 1992, though a majority of citizens in both countries wanted some form of union to continue.

Ones that got away: Bloody break-ups

The dissolution of the Federal Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia, in the 1990s, with its appalling history of “ethnic cleansing”, concentration camps and bloody sieges, reveals the darkest side of the nationalism.

It finally resulted in the formation of at least seven states, depending on how you count them. Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Macedonia, (former Yugoslav Republic of) Bosnia and Herzegovina (itself fragmented in two parts, Republika Srpska and the Bosniak/Bosnian Croat Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (the latter with its own internal fissures), Montenegro and Kosovo (limited international recognition)

Also in this category is Northern Cyprus, regarded by EU member state Cyprus as part of its national territory occupied by Turkey (in 1974). Northern Cyprus is recognised only by Turkey.

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