European Separatism: Scotland, Catalonia, and Growing Divisions in the EU

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Despite the recent stability among Europe’s nation-states, the continent has for generations been incredibly divided. In addition to wars and centuries-long rivalries, the demographic composition of the states themselves has often been a source of conflict. As alliances, conquests, and marriages merged the territories of Europe’s many kingdoms over the centuries, minority groups were invariably caught in the middle, leading to internal conflicts and competing territorial claims that worsened existing conflicts among European states. Notable examples include Scotland, Catalonia, Flanders, Wallonia, Alsace-Lorraine, Northern Ireland, and the Basque Country.

Few European minorities, however, are more relevant today than  the Scots and the Catalans, as they have launched high-profile independence movements that have captured global attention and threaten to permanently alter European geopolitics. These movements have significant backing among their people, whose existing regional governments provide an organized power structure capable of supporting and sustaining independence movements. Most importantly, these movements are having a large impact on two incredibly important European states: the United Kingdom and Spain. While the governing structure of the European Union (which requires unanimous consent for new members) would likely leave an independent Scotland or Catalonia looking from the outside in, thus harming the viability of these potential states, these movements should not be ignored. The rise of Scottish and Catalan nationalism and the resulting responses by their governments contains important lessons for EU member states and will be an important political issue in the EU for years to come as both peoples pursue political independence.

On September 18, 2014, Scotland voted 55%-45% to remain in the United Kingdom, ending, at least temporarily, the efforts of the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) to bring about an independent Scotland. During the referendum, Britain’s three major political parties formed a coalition that encouraged Scots to vote no and remain in the U.K. Among the issues used to convince Scots to vote no was the uncertainty of an independent Scotland being able to join the EU. This argument was effective for several reasons, and it demonstrates why the existence of the EU is a major obstacle for any independence movement within the EU. First, since the process for new states to join the Union requires the unanimous consent of all existing member states, the new state’s former state (or any other hostile member state) could easily derail its membership. This gives significant power to member states with separatist movements because they can both deny an independent state within their former territory EU membership and similarly deny membership to any other new, independent state within the Union in order to discourage a separatist movement within its own borders. Second, the denial of EU membership would, in itself, likely derail most independence movements. Losing the Euro, membership in European Economic Area (EEA), and the benefits of open borders would cause any newly independent European state to experience long-term economic challenges, as easy access to other European markets through the EEA’s free trade zone, open borders with other EU member states, and membership in the EU’s strong currency would be cut off upon gaining independence. While some of these challenges would not be applicable to Scotland or would apply in different ways, the prospect of these difficulties was a potent weapon deployed by the No-vote coalition in Scotland. As a result, it also strengthened the appeal of another common obstacle for independence movements: the promise of more regional powers by the central government.

A popular solution for dealing with separatist movements in recent times has been giving regions with a desire to seek independence more devolved powers over regional affairs. This can range from empowering the regional governor to creating an entirely separate regional parliament and government, as Britain has done in Scotland and as Spain has done in Catalonia. National governments also have a wide range of additional devolutionary tools at their disposal to give more powers to existing regional governments in order to create greater self-rule, including more spending and taxing powers and greater local say over how national laws apply to the region. This strategy is effective because it maintains national unity while satisfying the grievances of increasingly separatist regions that want more local control over their own affairs.

Separatists can use the prospect of independence as an excellent bargaining chip to seek greater regional autonomy. For instance, the Scottish referendum forced Westminster to offer Scotland more devolved powers, and, despite the referendum’s failure, the Scottish people strengthened their regional government by electing 56 members of the SNP to the British Parliament at the polls this past May. As a result, all but 3 MPs from Scotland are members of the SNP. If Parliament follows through on its promises, a strengthened Scottish regional government will satisfy many Scots who might otherwise have considered supporting independence. The appeal of gaining more regional powers is a potent obstacle for independence movements because many grievances can be remedied without independence. This, coupled with the prospect of being left out of the EU, makes independence an extremely hard sell. However, if central governments are unwilling to consider expanding regional powers and address the concerns of minority groups, they fuel separatist movements because independence (and the threat of it) becomes the only way to address regional concerns.

Despite important differences between the two regions, these lessons from Scotland are equally applicable to Catalonia’s quest to be independent from Spain. While Catalonia has a much larger share of its nation’s population than does Scotland and has an even more disproportionate amount of its nation’s economic activity, it would still face many of the same issues that have deterred Scottish independence. Though Catalonia could be categorized as Spain’s economic powerhouse, a departure from Spain and the EU could have dramatic economic consequences, making it difficult to trade with its former countrymen and France to the north and forcing many multinational corporations doing business in Barcelona to relocate in order to remain in the EU. This, combined with the loss of the Euro and membership in the open-border Schengen Area, would make independence a hard sell to Catalans, particularly if Spain decides to offer Catalonia more regional powers.

But Catalonia is also a perfect example of how central governments should not handle independence movements. Spain, in an effort to deny legitimacy to Catalan calls for independence, has ignored referendum attempts and refused to offer more regional powers beyond the current constitutional arrangement. By stifling overwhelming calls for a referendum and failing to offer Catalans an alternative to independence, the Spanish Government is only fueling the rise of Catalonian separatism and deepening the distrust between Catalans and the Spanish Government stemming from decades of difficulties during the Franco regime. When independence movements like those in Catalonia and Scotland are supported by legitimate historical claims, cultural identity, and growing popular support, national governments should take them seriously and have confidence that the desire for national unity will trump separatist aspirations in a popular vote.  Failing to do so is undemocratic and will only strengthen the legitimacy of calls for independence. As Scotland’s referendum showed, putting the question to a vote can have positive results for national unity; the national government earned a democratic mandate to keep Scotland in the U.K.

Another interesting European example of separatism is the situation of Flanders and Wallonia in Belgium. The Dutch-speaking Flemish and French-speaking Walloons both have sought independence at various times in Belgium’s history since its independence from the Netherlands in 1830. However, as Flanders has grown in population and prospered economically, Flemish calls for independence have increased in recent years despite Flanders and Wallonia already having their own regional governments in Belgium’s federal system. Flanders now contains over 60% of Belgium’s population and three-quarters of its economic activity, meaning that Flanders effectively subsidizes the less-wealthy Wallonia region in terms of government programs. And as a result of mounting Flemish frustration, the pro-separatist New Flemish Alliance won a plurality in Belgium’s parliament in the 2014 elections. The existence of two incredibly distinct peoples in two different regions of the country makes Belgium’s situation very complex, since independence for Flanders would effectively mean the end of the Belgian state. The Belgian government thus faces an immense dilemma; it can neither allow an independence referendum, as a ‘yes’ vote would tear apart the Belgian nation, nor can it afford to ignore the New Flemish Alliance and its supporters.

Despite the difficulties that the EU creates for independence movements, they should not be ignored or written off. Scotland was less than half a million votes from leaving the United Kingdom after three centuries of unity with England, and the Tory government in London is now confronted with the problem of how to deal with the issues surrounding Scottish calls for more autonomy. How it does so will determine whether support for Scottish independence wanes or continues to grow. With the possible exception of Belgium, European nations dealing with independence movements should heed the lessons of Scotland, for the democratic principles that form the foundation of modern liberal democracies and the EU demand that the legitimate grievances of separatist citizens receive due consideration. As the past year has shown in Ukraine, separatism can be incredibly dangerous to the stability of nations and even lead to war in extreme circumstances when it is ignored or left unchecked. While devolution of powers to regional governments and independence referendums are often controversial and may have unintended consequences not discussed here, they often offer the best chance for keeping a state together despite the centrifugal forces pulling it apart from the inside.

Connor Pfeiffer is a sophomore from San Antonio, Texas, tentatively majoring in the History Department. He can be reached at connorp@princeton.edu.

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