European Union |Essay

Spain’s Catalonia crisis: parallels across EU

  1. Push-pull pressures at the heart of Europe
  2. City states, principalities and nations

Talk (21)


Jean-Jacques Subrenat

"@Anthony, thanks for your message. As..."

Anthony Steel

"thanks for revision. much better. I s..."

Jean-Jacques Subrenat

"Hello Sam, thanks for your comments. ..."
Sam Toland

Sam Toland

"An independent Scotland can retain th..."

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).

United Kingdom

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.



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A former French ambassador. Does volunteer work on global issues, public policies, international affairs, ethics, Internet governance.

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08 February 2018

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  1. Flagged as bias

    ok I think this is an important subject and well done for raising it but the bit about Scotland annoyed me and I believe showed bias with a little inaccuracy.

    It is not true to say Brexit has prompted Scots to reconsider. A VERY FEW may be reconsidering but mostly it has been seized upon by nationalists (who always want independence) to stir up the issue again.
    Also to say the UK government want to leave the EU “come what may” shows bias.

    To use the words “crashing out” implies the same bias and who says prospects for independence will rise? only someone who supports the EU institutions and wants to see the UK fail outside the EU.

    Finally even the SNP have declared that an independent Scotland should keep the Queen as monarch so that is plain fiction.

    please revise the article.

    1. Rewrite

      Hello, I will look at modifying the following expressions: ”come what may” and ”crashing out”, although they have been widely used in the UK media. The other items you criticised, also taken from (mostly) UK sources, are more a matter of personal opinion. As for your remark about the monarchy, my point was that if any part of the UK were to become a republic, which in international law designates a sovereign state, that republic would most likely cease to recognize the monarch as its sovereign.

      1. Rewrite

        An independent Scotland can retain the monarchy – international law does not all sovereign states as ‘republics’ (that the United Kingdom is itself a sovereign state would confirm this of course).

        The precedent for new countries remaining monarchies after succession is well documented.

        Canada and Australia for instance retained the Queen as head of state after independence from the United Kingdom.

        When Norway became independent from Sweden, they did not retain the King of Sweden as the King of Norway – but they elected a former prince of Denmark as the new King of Norway.

        I would revise this in your article.

        1. Rewrite

          Hello Sam, thanks for your comments.
          – Naturally, a sovereign state can very well be a monarchy; but then it is not a republic.
          – Canada and Australia are sovereign states, but they are not republics (their full name is not Republic of Canada or Republic of Australia); they recognize the constitutional monarchy of the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland as their ”sovereign”.
          – As you pointed out correctly, since it became independent from Sweden, Norway has remained a kingdom, with a different monarch. Neither of these sovereign states is a republic.
          – The article simply stated: ”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.”
          – As can be seen from the above, the point being made was not about the comparative merits of a republic or a monarchy; it simply stated that, if this or that part of the UK were to gain independence, it might decide on changing its constitutional form. And if that happened to be a republic, ”it seems probable that they would cease to recognize the British monarch as their sovereign”. Nothing more, nothing less.

      2. Rewrite

        thanks for revision. much better. I still think “republic of scotland” very very unlikely. even before our Act of Union England and Scotland had the same monarch. a Modern monarchy is well above politics.

        1. Rewrite

          @Anthony, thanks for your message. As you can see in my response to Sam, it’s left to readers to decide if they prefer a monarchy or a republic. And you have made clear your personal position, ”a Modern monarchy is well above politics.” The purpose of my essay was to provide an overview of regions in EU member states which MIGHT experience some change, and for which the situation in Catalonia serves as a reminder. To my knowledge, apart from this piece in WT, there has been only one other essay with a Europe-wide approach on the Catalonia issue (I’ll provide the link when I find it).

  2. Rewrite

    It’s stalled for now, but Bavaria’s aspirations might be worth a mention. (I say that as someone who doesn’t think this is a good idea, but just to be complete…)

    1. Rewrite

      Hello Chad, thanks for your observation, and sorry for responding so belatedly. It’s interesting, but as you put it quite correctly, ”it’s stalled now…”.

  3. Flagged as bias

    This is quite a good starting point for the subject that the author is dealing with – parallel independence movements across Europe.

    I also think that it has been written in a professional fashion.

    I am interested though that when one writes about this subject in a ‘neutral’ tone, their is a bias in favour of the status quo.

    When reading the section on the situation in Belgium – its fragile nature, and mention of disintegration – its framed as a negative situation. When in reality many think that Belgium is a polity that is coming to its natural end… and it being replaced by a number of new, coherent polities within the European Union would be a positive thing.

    This article doesn’t (and perhaps can’t) hint at that.

    Anyway – just a thought, I am interested what the author thinks about this.

    1. Rewrite

      Hello Sam, thanks for an interesting remark. Having written reports for a long time, some to be read at high levels, I’ve learned that concepts or suggestions have more impact when they are presented in a ”neutral” tone, provided of course that those ideas or suggestions are themselves robust. In the essay I wrote for WT, one must be aware of the difference in context and time: whereas Catalonia has been described dramatically in the world news for many weeks, the division among communities in Belgium, though long-standing, has not been recently covered in the same fashion. Because of this difference, I chose to take a different approach: in the case of Spain, to point out that there is also another regional movement (Basque country), while the ”breaking news” about Catalonia is dealt with in thousands of other articles. In the case of Belgium (where I worked for several years), the problems have been less in the news recently, so I consider it useful to give a brief indication of what the debate is like among Belgians. Thanks.

  4. Hi Jean-Jacques, I’m on staff (consulting editor) and just doing a last read for my colleague. AL

  5. Thanks Angela. Just to help me grasp how things are being set up: are you the person who will clear my article for publication, or will that be done, after you, by someone on Staff?

  6. Good piece. I am just having a last look over it as on-site Hispanophile. Angela

  7. Angela is going to clear it for publication. Thanks Jean-Jacques!

  8. Ah, just saw Cassandra’s message saying that Angela will be clearing my article for publication. Thanks both.

  9. Hello George, I noticed that you were editing this piece, which is still ”pending”. Is there any problem or question, and could I help? Thanks. Jean-Jacques.

  10. Hello Piotr, thank you for suggesting the inclusion of Lega Nord in Italy and the Basque country in Spain. These have now been integrated in the text.

  11. Hello Charles, last night and this morning I’ve been adding links to concepts and facts. Additional links will be added shortly. Can you please point out what specifically requires attribution and/or link? Also, in agreement with George, I’ve changed the title.

  12. Jean-Jacques we need a lot more attribution and linking to the concepts and things you are writing about. Are you able to have a go through and reference anything that requires it.

  13. George, as Guadeloupe and Martinique in the Caribbean are ”départements”, I suggest we keep that word here. ”Territoires” applies to other entities, such as French Polynesia. Thanks. Jean-Jacques.

  14. Spelling: Brittany not Britanny To separatists movements in the EU, I would add the Lega Nord in Italy, demanding independence for a vaguely defined “Padania” region, covering regions around the Po valley and Veneto. Bavaria in Germany is making noises about splitting from the rest of the country, as they are net contributors. In Spain, the Basque country has a long and bloody (ETA) history of demands for independence, which seem to have subsided at the moment – we’ll if the Catalan situation revives their pretensions. Still in Spain, the Valencia region has a language practically identical to Catalan – with minor differences which don’t justify calling it a separate language, according to locals, but which has no separatist movement at this stage – so it’s not all about language and history, I reckon it’s down to local politicians creating a national narrative and building their careers on it

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