The European Union (EU) is the largest – and so far the most successful – regional integration project of modern times. But the question of Catalan independence has highlighted a fundamental tension at its heart: the push-and-pull relationship between nation-states and their constituent regional entities. In terms of public policy, programmes and spending, regional affairs represent a large part of EU activity.
These regions often demand autonomous powers that central governments are loath to grant, and have unique historical, cultural and even linguistic features that distinguish them from the nation as a whole.
The recent and controversial referendum held in the semi-autonomous region of Catalonia has highlighted the growing role of regions in the EU.
Catalonia is not the first case of real or perceived conflict of interests between countries and their constituent parts. Historically, powerful European cities and regions preceded nations. Venice and Genoa were leading powers long before the emergence of the unified Italian state. Prosperous Hanseatic League cities such as Lübeck, Bruges and Reval (now Tallinn) pre-dated the formation of Germany, Belgium and Estonia.
It is also worth noting that the EU counts among its members many countries that used to be part of larger national entities. In 1991 Slovenia became independent from Yugoslavia, and was admitted as a member of the EU in 2004. In 1993, Czechoslovakia peacefully split into two countries – the Czech Republic and Slovakia – and both became members of the EU in 2004. Croatia gained independence in 1991, and joined the EU in 2013.
But these countries joined the EU after becoming sovereign national entities. The current crisis between Catalonia and Spain’s central government is a striking example of the contemporary tensions between national and regional identities in a Union comprising sovereign states.
It also illustrates an awkward trend within the EU. Regions that have been reaping the rewards of their country’s integration into a community of nations are increasingly seeing themselves as capable of – indeed, destined for – enhanced autonomy, perhaps even sovereignty.
Here is a brief summary of how the crisis between Catalonia and Spain might impact five EU member states in which there are demands for enhanced autonomy or independence.
Since the death of King Baudouin of Belgium in 1993, the animosity between Dutch-speaking Flanders and French-speaking Wallonia has worsened. If anything, the decline of the monarchy – traditionally seen as a symbol of national unity – has heightened the feeling that the Belgian state is a fragile construct. For example, the New Flemish Alliance (N-VA) – the majority party in Belgium’s parliament – supports gradual secession of Flanders from Belgium.
If Catalonia were to become independent, this might encourage separatist movements in Belgium to lead the country down the path of disintegration. The scenario most often alluded to is a Belgium split into three political entities: the prosperous Dutch-speaking part; the French-speaking region where unemployment is higher; and Brussels as a separate entity that would continue to thrive as the largest seat of EU institutions. Some predict that the monarchy would not survive such a split, while others predict the King would remain the symbolic head of a virtual state.
Several forms of regional activism have existed in France for decades, with demands ranging from increased autonomy to full independence: in continental France, the regions of Brittany and Corsica; in the Indian Ocean, the French “overseas département” of Réunion (the département is roughly equivalent to a county in the UK); in North America, the ”overseas territory” of Saint-Pierre et Miquelon; in South America, the “overseas département” of Guiana; in the Indian Ocean, the ”overseas département” of Mayotte; in the Pacific, the ”overseas collectivity” of Wallis et Futuna, as well as the ”special collectivity” of New Caledonia which is due to hold a referendum on its sovereignty at the latest in November 2018. Could the Spanish/Catalan crisis impact some of these French regions?
Brittany’s independence movement has focused on complaints regarding infrastructure, economic development, employment, and a recognition of the Breton language. Historically neglected by successive French monarchs, and later by the first four Republics, Brittany has, to a large extent, joined the mainstream of French economic and social modernisation. And though education is dispensed in French, Breton is available as an option. In recent decades, the pro-independence movement has stagnated: a 2012 poll noted that Bretons considered themselves first French (48%), then Breton (37 percent) and, lastly, European (10 percent). At this stage, it is unlikely that the Catalonian crisis will significantly boost pro-independence sentiments in Brittany.
Corsica faces more severe structural problems: the constraints of insularity, the narrow base (mainly tourism) upon which economic development is predicated, unemployment above the already significant national average, and some mafia-type networks disguising their criminal pursuits as pro-independence activism. For many decades, there has been a demand for greater autonomy, particularly with regards to the status of the Corsican language. However, Corsica has continued to rely on national funds for its infrastructure, economic development, education, culture, and health care. Over the decades, local institutions have been strengthened: the Corsican Assembly elects the Executive Council which, alongside the préfet representing the central government, administers the island.
Active and vocal pro-independence movements exist in the French départements of Guadeloupe and Martinique in the Caribbean, and in French Guiana in the northern part of South America. While these movements’ activism has led to strikes and occasional bouts of violence, observers consider these territories could not subsist in the long-run without direct economic support from the French state.
French Polynesia, in the Pacific, has a special status with a territorial government and an Assembly, in addition to voting for representatives to the National assembly in Paris. The results in French presidential elections give some indication of a decline in support for independence, with a larger majority in favour of French Polynesia remaining in the French Republic. As in other parts of ”overseas France”, while there are clear calls for better infrastructure, education, public health and culture, independence is not currently a majority demand.
The ”Northern League for the Independence of Padania” (Lega Nord per l’Indipendenza della Padania) was founded in 1991 as a coalition of parties in Northern and Central Italy. While its official designation suggests complete independence as its target, in fact Lega Nord calls for the transformation of Italy into a federal state, fiscal federalism and enhanced regional autonomy. It is noteworthy that, since its foundation, Lega Nord has followed a variety of aims: winning local and national elections, taking part in government coalitions, promoting anti-immigration policies, demeaning the European Union, demanding fiscal reform. Because of this wide agenda, and its shifting emphasis on very different targets over time, Lega Nord is not currently focused on regional independence.
Catalonia is not the only autonomous region of Spain with a history of activism in favour of independence. If the Catalonian movement has attracted public attention in the context of its recent referendum on independence, the Spanish Basque country, recognized as an autonomous region since 1978, has experienced many phases of unrest and even of armed conflict. The driving political force for secession was ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, “Basque Homeland and Liberty”). After decades of violence, in 2010 the ETA party declared a truce, which has been largely followed since. During the 2017 Catalan referendum, the Basque parliament supported the Catalan calls for independence and was very critical of the Spanish government’s refusal to negotiate, and the way the police treated the demonstrators in Barcelona. It is interesting to note that in this period, Basques showed a preference for further self-government (link in Spanish) (43.5 percent), with independence and present-day status quo ranking as second and third options (22.6 percent and 18.9 percent).
In Scotland, the referendum held in 2014 gave a clear majority in favour of remaining in the UK. But the UK’s intention to withdraw from the EU (Brexit) might prompt Scots to reconsider their allegiances. With the UK Conservative government seemingly set on implementing Brexit, including in the case of ”no deal”, the Scottish National Party (SNP) has found a new issue to rally support for Scottish independence.
For now, any serious prospect of a renewed bid for Scottish independence is hampered by the lack of clarity on the way the UK is handling the Brexit process with the EU. If Brexit were to fail and lead to a “no deal” scenario, with Britain leaving the EU without agreed terms and calendar, the prospects for Scottish independence would rise.
In EU history there has never been a case of a sovereign state withdrawing and being replaced by one of its component regions; for Scotland, this path would be fraught with legal and institutional difficulties. In the longer term, a successful independence movement in Scotland could have a knock-on effect on Wales and Northern Ireland.
With varying degrees of probability, and on a time scale that is difficult to predict at this stage, achieving independence could lead Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to each proclaim their transformation into a republic. And, as a consequence of seceding from the United Kingdom, it seems probable that they would cease to recognize the British monarch as their sovereign.