By Assad Bhuglah
The European Union is regarded as a union of diverse territories. The progressive expansion of regional identities as a response to European integration acts as the main trigger of demand for regional autonomy. Europe faces the dilemma of how best to redesign its institutions towards more unity whilst maintaining its diversity of preferences and needs. Many areas in Europe have strong secessionist movements (e.g. Scotland, Catalonia, Basque, Flanders, Veneto) or have political parties agitating for greater ruling autonomy. Britain's vote to leave the European Union is almost certainly one of the most seismic political events in the Western world in the last couple of decades. While Britain leaving the EU is undoubtedly the biggest split ever witnessed in Europe, there are movements across Europe that could end up physically separating entire nations.
Since the Catalan independence referendum, successive attempts to voice demands for independence have started to be seen in the majority of autonomous regions throughout the whole of Europe. This wave of independence throughout Europe is likely to face strict reactions from the EU as its leading member states have their own concerns of territorial integrity and unity. One region of Spain that is certainly watching events in Catalonia with interest is the Basque Country, an "autonomous community" situated on the north coast of Spain. Like Catalonia, the Basque Country has its own language and distinct culture. Unlike Catalonia, it also has a history of some violent separatism with various terrorist attacks carried out by the nationalist and separatist group Eta. The armed movement for independence called a ceasefire in 2010 which was made permanent in 2011.
In addition to Catalonia there is Scotland, which had already searched the ground for announcing its independence in the year 2014, and is getting prepared to organize another referendum. Independence campaigners are vociferously calling for a second referendum on splitting from the rest of the UK. Scotland has been part of the United Kingdom for more than 300 years, and many Scots have been less than happy about that. They already have their own parliament, and the Scottish National Party (SNP) has been pushing for full independence. The referendum in 2014 failed to achieve that, however, but independence sentiments were again stoked by the Brexit result in 2016. Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon (SNP) reasoned that her country, which voted largely to remain in the EU, should not be forced to automatically leave the EU along with the rest of the UK. She is floating the possibility of another referendum for 2018, when the details of Brexit are clearer.
Flanders and Wallonia in Belgium, Veneto, Lombardy and Sardinia in Italy, Corsica in France, Bavaria in Germany, Brittany in France and again Wales are regions that are also candidates to stand up for independence. In a clear stance, France – as many other EU member states – which has its own ethnic factors, is strictly against demands of independence.
The rise of far right in Europe, which was confirmed by the election results in Germany, Austria, the Netherlands and France, is another factor that should be evaluated within the same political picture in Europe. The wave of independence is also linked with the failure of the idea of EU solidarity and unity as well as the increasing tendency toward far-right ideologies. The consequences of all those factors are obviously seen in the case of refugees, hatred of Muslims, xenophobia and discrimination.
The Catalan referendum to declare independence from Spain was followed by another chain of referendums held in two of Italy’s wealthiest regions of Veneto and Lombardy, asking for autonomy from Italy, but not independence. The Italian constitution recognizes five of its 20 regions as autonomous and the result of the above-mentioned referendums can just be taken as a consultative factor. Over 95 per cent of voters who flocked to the polls in the Veneto and Lombardy regions, home to Venice and Milan, supported a mandate to negotiate a better deal with the Italian capital. Both regions are run by the Northern League (LN) party, which was once openly secessionist but has lately shifted its focus to run on an anti-euro ticket in the hope of expanding its influence into the south. Venetians’ independence drive has since served as a warning to authorities in Italy and elsewhere in Europe how easily secessionist resistance against a central government can turn violent. In 2014, more than two dozen people were arrested for attempting to split the region from Italy after transforming a bulldozer into a makeshift tank.
In Germany, the region of Bavaria has long entertained the thought of separating from the rest of the country, although such proposals have rarely been taken too seriously. Bavaria’s leverage as the country's richest region — similar to the economic weight of Catalonia in Spain — has given it an advantage on the political stage. In an indication of its influence, German Chancellor Angela Merkel's power rests on a union between her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian counterpart Bavaria’s Christian Social Union (CSU), which is a regional party with a distinct leadership. The CSU's political power became apparent most recently when it forced Merkel to agree to an upper limit on the number of refugees allowed to enter the country every year. The CSU party is not advocating for independence and it is very unlikely that this will change, but surveys show that a minority of Bavarians (more than 20 percent) thought their state would be better off being independent.
Belgium is divided between the Walloons and the Flemish, two communities that do not share a common language. While the Flemish in the northern part of the country speak a local version of Dutch, the southern Walloons speak French (Belgium borders France). The northern part is richer which partially explains the divide within the country and the Flemish demands for independence. In addition to not sharing a language, the two communities are split along historic and socio-economic lines. Yet, as is the case in Germany’s Bavaria, the Flemish pro-independence party is currently part of the national government and has seen little benefit in trying to capitalize on the chaotic Catalan secession efforts as a role model for their region.
Separatist movements in Europe can range from small townships to entire regions and the motivations for wanting to go it alone are equally as diverse encompassing linguistic and cultural differences as well as economic and historical justifications. While some separatist movements harbor dreams of gaining just a bit more autonomy from the national government, others like Catalonia are aimed at gaining full independence and nothing less.