Financial Times

November 8, 2012 7:16 pm

Europe: Stretched at the seams

By Tony Barber

Separatist movements raise questions about the EU
people opposed to the independence of the Catalonia region of Spain, hold Catalan and Spanish flags during the holiday known as Dia de la Hispanidad, Spain's National Day in Barcelona, Spain, Friday, Oct. 12, 2012. Spain is in recession and under pressure to fix its finances while celebrating the day Christopher Columbus discovered America in the name of the Spanish Crown©AP

Divided they stand: Catalan and national flags aloft in Barcelona in October. Catalans favour a vote on independence despite Madrid’s warnings it would be illegal

Under the pressures of recession, fragile public finances and political grievances that have smouldered for decades, if not centuries, Europe is witnessing a rise in separatism and regionalism that is testing the resilience of well-established states. Independence movements in Scotland, Catalonia and Flanders are capturing votes and the public imagination as they seek to break away or gain more autonomy from Spain, Belgium and the UK.

Europe is facing an economic crisis. This crisis is causing stress in the vicinity of long-buried faultlines. The blame game is in full swing,” John Bruton, a former Irish prime minister, wrote in The Irish Times last month.

Belgium has a more classical federal structure, which is reflected in the country’s division into three regions and three linguistic communities (a small German-speaking population, as well as Dutch and French). But the Flemish and francophone Walloons have been revising it for 40 years in a fruitless search for equilibrium. Arguably, the only large European country with a balanced federal system is Germany.
In all three countries, the central state and its outlying nationalities and regions have struggled since the 1970s to find a lasting formula for the distribution of power. Spain and the UK are not federal states but countries where improvised political solutions have bestowed varying degrees of self-rule on different areas, imparting a lopsided and contested quality to the overall settlements.In late 2014, Scots will vote in a referendum that will either confirm or reject the 1707 Act of Union with England. Catalans want to hold a similar ballot, in spite of warnings from the Spanish government and parliament that it would be illegal. Belgium, Europe’s most decentralised state apart from dysfunctional Bosnia-Herzegovina, seems set on a path that will disconnect its Dutch-speaking majority still more from its francophone community, though not necessarily bydissolving the Belgian state.

In Italy, a crop of corruption scandals at regional and provincial level has cast a poor light on the nation’s experiment in decentralised government. The Italian economic crisis has meanwhile fuelled regionalist sentiment in the affluent Alpine region of South Tyrol.

To some non-European eyes, secessionism presents a curious spectacle in that Europeans themselves tend to argue that the solution to their economic, debt and banking crises lies in a more integrated Europe. But the Catalans and Flemish see no contradiction between the pursuit of national sovereignty and adhesion to a more closely united Europe – and, even if the Scots have no desire to join the eurozone, they certainly wish to stay in the EU.

In any case, the inescapable reality is that restive national minorities and regionalist parties are to be found in abundance all over the continent. The European Free Alliance, a Brussels-based coalition of more than 40 nationalist and autonomist parties, contains Alsatian and Corsican movements from France, Frisians from the Netherlands, Italians from Croatia, Poles from Lithuania, along with many others.

Some of these movements seek more extensive self-government rather than outright secession. Some seek unity with co-nationals in a neighbouring state. Even those that want a state of their own 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 100 years, the geopolitical map of Europe has been anything but fixed. Recent additions to the list of states include: Montenegro, which lost its independence in 1918 and regained it in 2006; and Kosovo, which declared independence in 2008, though five of the EU’s 27 states have withheld recognition.

“Pro-independence sentiment in Spain and other parts of Europe has also grown stronger because some separatist parties have grown more adept at selling their message,” says Tomas Valasek of the Centre for European Reform, a UK-based think-tank.

For some EU governments, the disappearance of familiar states would be troubling. Policy makers in Dublin, for instance, fear Scottish independence would destabilise the delicate power-sharing arrangements in Northern Ireland by reinvigorating the Sinn Féin-backed cause of an all-Irish state.

For the EU as a whole, secessionist movements present something of a conundrum. The bloc’s treaties contain provisions that permit a country to join or leave. But they are silent on whether a region detached from a “mother state” has an automatic right to membership. The best guess is that no such right exists but that it would be hard to keep out a newly independent democracy for long. Caution is advisable, however. There are, quite simply, no precedents.

Scotland: Inherited EU status in doubt

To the discomfort of secessionists, Scotland had no sooner won the UK government’s agreement last month to a referendum on independence than the crucial question of EU membership reared its head. Opinion polls this year indicate support for full separation is at about 30 per cent. But if EU membership were in doubt, it would be a less attractive proposition.

It emerged last month that, contrary to his earlier suggestions, Alex Salmond, first minister and leader of the Scottish National party, did not possess private legal advice confirming that a breakaway Scotland would have no problem inheriting membership. In fact, gaining swift re-entry might prove difficult – particularly if Madrid, faced with Catalan secession, chose to treat the case as a precedent that presented a threat to Spanish unity.

The UK government stated on November 1 that, based on the formal advice of its law officers, an independent Scotland would have to apply for EU admittance as a new state. It would then have to negotiate terms with all other 26 members, including the residual UK.

This would cover matters such as the EU budget, where the UK benefits from a rebate, and membership of the eurozone and Schengen border-free travel zone. It looks unlikely Scotland would automatically inherit the right to exclude itself from these fundamental areas of European integration.

Nevertheless, if the 2014 referendum produced a clear vote in favour of leaving the UK, the EU would be under pressure to negotiate Scotland’s terms of membership speedily before the planned date of independence. If it produced a No result, the SNP might focus its attention on increasing the autonomy granted to Scotland in 1998.

Flanders: Independence demands deferred

In 2006, a Belgian television station ran a spoof report that Flanders, the nation’s Dutch-speaking half, had declared independence. Thousands called an emergency phone number for more information. Several ambassadors in Brussels sent urgent messages to their national capitals.

At first sight Flemish secession now seems an even more realistic possibility than six years ago. The New Flemish Alliance (NVA), the region’s leading nationalist party, won municipal elections last month. Party leader Bart De Wever won in Antwerp, a Socialist stronghold since the 1930s.

Yet Mr De Wever is not demanding independence right away. He wants constitutional changes that will turn Belgium into a loose confederation. He imagines the state will eventually evaporate but is vague about how.

Belgium was created in 1831 as a combination of francophone and Dutch-speaking communities that remain largely separate. Modern Flanders is one of Europe’s most prosperous regions, and its nationalists caricature francophone Wallonia as a swamp of boneheads and welfare addicts. The Walloons see the Flemish as humourless money-grubbers.

Breaking up Belgium would require an agreement on Brussels, the French-speaking capital surrounded by Flanders, but neither Walloon nor Flemish nationalists will let the others grab it. To detach it from both regions and declare it a freestanding European city appeals to neither side.

Moreover, Europe’s financial crisis has shown that the Belgian state, however unloved, still serves a useful purpose. It was government ministers and regulators, not regional leaders, who played the vital role in co-ordinating rescues of the Fortisand Dexia banking groups.

Catalonia: Popular pressure for secession

A snap election in Catalonia on November 25 appears certain to produce re-election for Convergència i Unió, the ruling nationalist party. Whether this triggers a referendum on independence and leads to Spain’s break-up is an altogether different question.

Under Spain’s 1978 constitution, regions are permitted autonomy but have no legal right to full independence. Opinion polls indicate that about 80 per cent of Catalonia’s 7.5m people want a referendum, and that about half would vote in favour of secession. Support for a referendum is so overwhelming that some Catalan politicians warn of a serious confrontation if Madrid refuses to modify its view that such a vote would be illegal.

Significantly, however, Artur Mas, Catalonia’s CiU president, seems in no hurry to hold one. This month he suggested merely that it should take place “in the next four years”. If cool heads prevail on both sides, there should still be enough time for a compromise.

Underlining the limits on Mr Mas’s freedom of political manoeuvre, Catalonia – shut out of international debt markets – asked in August for €5bn in liquidity assistancefrom the Spanish state. The region might have to settle for an updated model of autonomy, perhaps involving more regional control over tax affairs as in the Basque Country.

According to the latest opinion polls, a deal along these lines would cause support for independence to drop by 10 percentage points to 43 per cent. What remains unclear is whether the Spanish right – now in power in Madrid, and historically associated with centralisation – would be pragmatic enough to strike a deal.

South Tyrol: Agitation in a Germanic enclave

With low unemployment and no public debt, the northern Italian province of Alto Adige – in German, Südtirol – seems distant from the economic crisis gripping the country. Enhancing this sense is the Austro-Germanic flavour of life: ethnic Germans account for two-thirds of the province’s 510,000 people, and the German-speaking 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 as “an unrealisable dream”. He says South Tyrol’s autonomous status inside Italyserves it perfectly well. But provincial elections are due next year, and the moderate Mr Durnwalder is bowing out of politics.

Coupled with the crisis, this creates space for militant politicians. They denounce Rome for seeking a bigger contribution from South Tyrol to shore up national public finances. This proposal threatens to undermine the deal under which the region retains 90 per cent of the taxes it collects.

Separatists such as Eva Klotz, a leader of the South Tyrol Freedom party, which wants the region to secede and merge with Austria, agitate for a referendum on self-determination as early as next year. This seems unlikely because national politicians’ priority will be Italy’s parliamentary elections, due in April, the formation of a government and the selection of a head of state.

If Italy’s eurozone membership and economic stability were to come under serious threat, the mood in South Tyrol might turn more radical. But outright secession would run up against the obstacle that ethnic Italians make up a quarter of South Tyrol’s population and dominate Bolzano, the provincial capital.