I’m on a plane back to Brussels from Barcelona at the moment, still digesting the amusingly polarised reaction to Friday’s announcement that the EU has won the Nobel Peace Prize. The significance of the announcement was only heightened for me this weekend by the fact that, as the Nobel committee spoke of the achievement of the EU in keeping Europe together, I was in a country that may be about to tear itself apart.
Friday was Spanish National Day, but you wouldn’t have known it on the streets of Barcelona. The Catalans may have been happy to take the day off work, but they were clearly not in the mood to celebrate. There was no parade, no festivities and - most noticeably - not even any Spanish flags.
In fact the only way one would have known it was national day at all was that in the morning, the streets around Placa de Catalonia were filled with Police officers preparing for a planned march by secessionist demonstrators. Helicopters thundered above us, preparing for the possibility that the city would see a repeat of the massive secessionist demonstrations that took place on 11 September (Catalan National Day) that saw more than a million protestors flood the streets of Barcelona. However from what I saw, this time around the Catalans seemed to prefer ostentatious non-observance to demonstrations.
Though there were Catalan flags draped from nearly every window (perhaps left over from the 11 September celebrations), I did not see one Spanish flag except for those on government buildings.
The austerity measures being taken in Spain have fuelled a rise of secessionist sentiment in Spain’s regions, no more so than in Catalonia - Spain’s richest. The independence movement in Spain’s Catalan-speaking areas go back centuries, as far back as the Catalan revolt of 1640 (though at that time not based around language). Fears that the country would break apart after the fall of Franco’s dictatorship in the 1970’s were allayed after several regions were given semi-autonomous status and allowed to control much of their own policy. But with the economic crisis exacerbating the vastly divergent economic health of different areas of the country, those sentiments are again reaching a boiling point.
Sensing an opportunity, Artur Mas, the prime minister of Catalonia who is from the centre-right regional party CiU, earlier this month called snap elections for 25 November. Mas, who is the first Catalan prime minister to call for independence since the end of the dictatorship, believes a poll right now would deliver a massive defeat for the national Socialist and PP (conservative) parties and give the regional Catalan parties complete control. This could open the door to a referendum on independence. Such a referendum would actually violate the Spanish constitution, which was written post-dictatorship in the 1970’s. According to the most recent polls, just over half of the residents of Catalonia say they want full independence.
What has particularly attracted the Catalans ire at this time is the so-called ‘redistribution of wealth’ happening between Spanish regions. Catalonia is a net contributor to Spain's budget, but it suffers under the borrowing costs linked to the country as a whole. This has resulted in the country having to take out loans directly from Madrid. Given that Catalans are net contributors, there is a perception among Catalans that the region is having to pay interest just to get their own money back from the national government.
The argument has spilled into the European Parliament, pitting MEP against MEP. In September Catalan centre-right MEP Alejo Vidal-Quadras told a Spanish broadcaster that if Mas went ahead with his secession plans Madrid should should send in the Civil Guard. This prompted an outraged reaction from other Catalan MEPs, who accused it of being a Franco-like response to the increased mood for independence. It was particularly awkward because Vidal-Quadrasis a vice-president in the European Parliament.
Given the ongoing terrorist activities of the Basque separatist militia ETA, for years commentators have predicted that it would be the Basque Country which would be the first to open the secession problem for Spain. But it now looks like Catalonia could be the first shoe to drop.
Spain isn’t the only European country dealing with increasing secessionist impulses. Scotland’s devolved government, now under the control of the pro-independence ScottishNational Party (SNP), has scheduled a referendum on independence for 2014. Today UK Prime Minister David Cameron is visiting Scotland to make the case for continued union as he marks 100 weeks until the vote.
Of course one couldn’t mention secessionist movements without mentioning my current home. Belgium’s continued existence seems more and more in doubt as secessionist desires in the Dutch-speaking region of Flanders continue to grow. Yesterday’s communal elections in Belgium delivered a significant victory for secessionist parties in Flanders. Like the Catalans, the Flemish are tired of seeing money flow out of their region into poorer regions where the inhabitants do not speak the same language as them. But like in Catalonia, the Flemish separatist movement is about language first and economics second.
It is interesting to point out that unlike Scotland, ‘Catalonia’ has never existed as a polity until the modern era (The Kingdom of Aragon incorporated both Castilian- and Catalan-speaking populations). Likewise, the current polity of ‘Flanders’ has little historical precedent, merely named after an medeival county, the boundaries of which are today largely within France. The separatist movements in both these places are largely the result of modern linguistic nationalism rather than historical precedent.
Purely economic non-linguistic separatist movements are also rearing their heads in Europe. In Nothern Italy the secessionist sentiment has never been stronger, with the Northern League party registering record success with its demand for independence for an ahistorical separate country in the North they have named Padania. Bavaria has also seen independence sentiment grow, although this is certainly not embraced by the regional parties such as the CSU.
In all of these secessionist movements except Scotland, these are wealthy areas who no longer not want to subsidize their poorer compatriots. Is this a failure of the EU to foster a feeling of unity? Or has the EU become a victim of its own success, leading regions to think it would now be easy to separate because they would still be part of the EU's common market? Another thing that links all of these secessionist movements is that they are decidedly pro-EU. Catalonia, Scotland and Flanders have some of the highest EU approval ratings in Europe.
Would the EU allow it?
Nobody appears to have asked the EU about this. Perhaps this is because the EU quite clearly does not have an answer. But with all of these independence movements gaining strength, Brussels may not be able to ignore this issue much longer.
No member state has broken up since the creation of the European Union in 1992. But, precedent has been set through the separation of Algeria from France while it was a member of the European Community (the precursor to the EU) in the 1960s. Algeria did not automatically become an EC member and never applied to join, so based on the legal precedent, the same would be true of a separating region today. It would not automatically be in the union but would have to apply to join as a new state.
Five current EU states (Slovakia, Slovenia, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia) seceded from larger states (Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and the USSR respectively) within the past twenty years. But they did so before joining the EU. In hindsight, Slovakia's split seems quite prescient. It's debatable how long they could have made it as a completely independent country. But by becoming an independent country just 10 years before joining the EU, they never had to find out. They got to join the EU as a member state with all the rights and privileges that affords - their own commissioner, their own seat in the council and a veto right.
Bearing that in mind, it would be very much in the interest of any independent-minded region in Europe today to secede from their member state and rejoin the EU as an independent country. The benefits of being part of a large country are much less convincing in Europe now that there is a common market. Because of the representation afforded each member state regardless of its size, its arguably better to be a small member state in a big union than a big region within a member state
It would appear that for the moment nobody wants to cross this bridge just yet. The EU does not want to be seen to be denying any people in Europe their right to self-determination, especially if it’s purely for political reasons (not setting precedent). But if poll numbers start showing that the independence referendum in Scotland may pass as we get closer to 2014, the EU issue will have to be made clear.
It will be easier for a third country to do this, for instance if Spain announces ahead of the referendum that it will veto Scottish EU accession. But given how politically ugly this is, I’m sure they would wait until the last moment. The same would be true if Catalonia ends up scheduling a referendum before Scotland. The UK might intervene and announce a veto. Or maybe Belgium, Italy or Germany. But who is the unlucky member state who has to be the bully?
Eventually this question has to be answered. Yes, the current borders of Europe are often arbitrary and do not reflect linguistic or ethnic realities (let alone population size – some of these countries are absurdly tiny). But there has to be some kind of agreement that whatever the reality was when these states joined the union, that has to be the reality in perpetuity. That’s what happened in America when states joined the union. The US states are similar accidents of history and some, such as Rhode Island, are absurdly small. No, it doesn’t make sense that Rhode Island, which is smaller than the city of Los Angeles, gets two senators while all of California gets the same amount. But that’s just the way it worked out. It would be hugely beneficial for Los Angeles to seceed from California and become its own state. But it's just accepted in America that this is not a possibility.
The assumption in the US is that everything freezes whether the borders make sense or not, because to open up that can of worms would be a logistical and political nightmare. The EU, it can be assumed, also doesn't want to open that can of worms. But judging by what I saw in Catalonia this weekend, the worms may already be out of the can.