National movements from Flanders to the Faroes challenge borders across Europe

Catalans’ vote on September 27th will be seen as a plebiscite on independence

‘Ask a Catalan independentista why they want to leave Spain and they are more likely to cite Spain’s economic meltdown than fears over the future of the Catalan language in a Castilian dominated state.’   Above,  a pro-independence demonstration as part of the celebrations of the National Day of Catalonia on September 11th, 2014 in Barcelona. Photograph: David Ramos/Getty Images

‘Ask a Catalan independentista why they want to leave Spain and they are more likely to cite Spain’s economic meltdown than fears over the future of the Catalan language in a Castilian dominated state.’ Above, a pro-independence demonstration as part of the celebrations of the National Day of Catalonia on September 11th, 2014 in Barcelona. Photograph: David Ramos/Getty Images

 

Autumn is fast becoming the season for Europe’s secessionist movements.

Almost 12 months from Scotland’s vote on independence, Catalans are due to cast their votes on whether to leave Spain, on September 27th. The vote will not be an official referendum but September’s regional elections will be considered by many a de facto plebiscite.

If nationalists win a majority in the Generalitat in Barcelona, they will be expected to push for full secession.

European borders have shifted only a handful of times over the last two decades: the dissolution of Serbia and Montenegro; Kosovan independence in 2008; Russia’s annexation of Crimea last year. But the boundaries are unlikely to remain so static.

From Flanders to the Faroes, nationalist movements have been gaining ground across Europe. In Scotland, 1.6 million Scots voted to leave the UK. Although the union won out, in the aftermath of the referendum membership of the Scottish National Party has soared. The SNP is on course to win big at both Holyrood and Westminster elections.

In Belgium, the divide between French-speaking Wallonia and Dutch-speaking Flanders has long stymied attempts to foster national unity. The largest party in the whole of Belgium is the nationalist New Flemish Alliance (N-VA). The N-VA has previously called for the more prosperous Flanders to leave the Francophone south. With the European Commission in Brussels, the break-up would have EU-wide ramifications.

Venetian drift

Independence movements are riding high elsewhere on the continent. At nationalist gatherings from Edinburgh to Barcelona over the last 18 months, I have met gaggles of people carrying the Venetian flag. Last year, 89 per cent of Venetians voted for independence in an online petition.

The scandal-hit Lega Nord remains a fixture of Italian politics, while sub-state demands for autonomy and full independence frequently emanate from south Tyrol, Sardinia and Friuli.

Europe’s insurgent nationalist movements share many similarities. The majority want independence from a larger state they feel is historically, linguistically or culturally distinct. But Europe’s secessionist forces are often motivated by conflicting political philosophies. As Tom Nairn wrote in his seminal The Break-Up of Britain, nationalism is Janus-faced: at times progressive, tolerant, emancipatory; at others negative, backward, xenophobic and even racist.

Different sub-state nationalisms present different sides of this Janus face. While Bosnian Serbs might rely on purely ethnic visions of nationhood to make their case for tearing apart Bosnia and Herzegovina, SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon is at pains to outline a civic vision in which ethnicity has no correlation with independence.

Europe’s last great state-building exercise happened amid the rubble of the Berlin Wall and the violent break-up of Yugoslavia. The current spike in demands for more regional powers has its roots in a very different set of geopolitical tumults. Ask a Catalan independentista why they want to leave Spain and they are more likely to cite Spain’s economic meltdown than fears over the future of the Catalan language in a Castilian-dominated state.

Economics vs ideology

Scotland’s referendum was as much a product of the 2008 financial crash, MP expenses, falling real wages and deindustrialisation as it was about commitments laid out in the SNP’s prospectus for independence. Despite September’s No vote, Scottish enthusiasm for the UK remains at best lukewarm. The next time Scotland votes on independence, Catalonia might have already provided a precedent for leaving a European state, in the process answering awkward questions about currency and EU membership.

Ireland was once at the coalface of any prospective European boundary changes. During the cold war, the Border seemed the most likely to shift in Europe. But the post-Berlin Wall thaw coincided with a change in the Northern Irish dynamic. Calls for a Border poll are muted.

Nevertheless, Scottish independence would pose major questions about the long-term future of the UK, and Northern Ireland’s place within it.

Quebec remains a cautionary tale for many secessionists. The French-Canadian province held a referendum on independence first in 1980, and then in 1995. The latter was tight: a swing of less than a single percentage point would have seen the establishment of a new independent Quebec state. Quebec’s constitutional question remains unsettled, but there is little sign of a pro-independence majority.

Last year, the Parti Québécois minority government, riding high in polls, called snap elections. Voters – wary it intended a third referendum on leaving Canada – responded by kicking the Quebec nationalists out of office.

Peter Geoghegan is author of The People’s Referendum: Why Scotland will Never be the Same Again published by Luath Press

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