Scotland’s independence referendum could lead to the founding of the European Union’s first new state. DW presents some of Western Europe’s other separatist movements.
In Europe’s eastern half, the disintegration of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia created many new countries. In Western Europe, however, borders of the old nation states seemed to be carved in stone. There have been secessionist tendencies, some of them militant, but they never seemed to have a shot in reality.
That has changed with the planned referendum in Scotland. London has stated it will respect the Scottish people’s will and would even release them from the United Kingdom. And polls show that a “yes” to independence is possible. This could embolden a host of other independence movements across Western Europe.
The union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom has existed for more than 300 years. But it could soon come to an end, if the majority of Scots votes for independence on September 18. The straight forward yes-or-no question about secession might not even have been necessary, had the British government allowed a third option of more autonomy. Most Scots would have almost certainly decided on this.
But London didn’t permit that, apparently assuming that full independence would scare off most Scottish people. This plan could now go awry. If a majority votes for secession, Europe could witness the rebirth of the Scottish state on March 24, 2016.
Nowhere in Western Europe has Scotland been more of a role model than in Catalonia. During the Franco regime, Catalan was prohibited. The region currently has a high level of cultural and political autonomy and its own regional parliament. But that’s not enough for many Catalans. They want their own state, mainly for economic reasons. They say that rich Catalonia is being sucked dry by the whole Spanish state.
Since the beginning of the economic crisis, the number of supporters of independence has significantly risen. The regional government in Barcelona wants to hold a referendum just like the Scottish one in November. But unlike the British government, Madrid doesn’t want to comply. A confrontation seems inevitable.
Basque nationalism and the Basque language were also oppressed during Franco’s dictatorship. But the Spanish Basque Country is in worse economic shape than Catalonia. A minority of today’s Basque nationalists is a lot more militant, though. The Basque underground organization ETA has killed more than 800 people in 50 years to efforts to achieve secession from Madrid. Three years ago, ETA renounced violence. But neither assaults nor negotiations have brought Basque Country closer to a referendum – let alone independence. The Spanish central government alone would be able to hold such a referendum and Madrid rejects this just like a referendum in Catalonia.
In Belgium’s most recent parliamentary elections, the New Flemish Alliance under Bart de Wever became the strongest power in Flanders. De Wever is convinced that the Belgian state will go up in smoke anyway, so he wants to establish an independent Flanders in negotiations. Flemish separatism is a special case: Belgium only consists of the Dutch-language Flanders, the French-language Wallonia, which also includes a German-speaking community, and the officially bilingual Brussels.
Should Flanders secede, Belgium would lose significantly more than half of its population and economic power. There’d be little left of Belgium. A big contentious issue in that case would be Brussels, which is also the seat of EU and NATO. It also remains unclear what would happen to Wallonia. There has been talk of joining it with France, Luxembourg or even Germany. But so far, the Belgians have always managed to pull together.
The northern Italian secessionist movement has a solely economic motivation. The North with the regions Lombardy, Aosta Valley, Piedmont, Liguria, Venetia and Emilia Romagna generates a big part of Italy’s national product with its industrial companies and banks. Many northern Italians believe that the people in central and south Italy fritter away their hard earned money. In the 1990s, the Lega Nord party called for a full secession of “Padania,” a name derived from the Italian “pianura padana” for the Po Valley. Today, Lega Nord is more moderate. At the moment, the group only asks that the North can keep three quarters of the generated money instead of transferring it to Rome first.
In South Tyrol, economic and historic-cultural factors come together. South Tyrol belonged to Austria-Hungary until the end of the First World War and was then adjudged to Italy. After a phase of Italianification during Mussolini’s regime, South Tyrol gained more and more political and linguistic autonomy after the Second World War. The wealthy region is even allowed to keep a large part of their state income.
For a long time, South Tyrol’s citizens seemed satisfied. But the national debt crisis has lit new fire under the separatist movement. After Greece, Italy is the most in-debt country in the eurozone. Many South Tyrol citizens who are doing very well themselves don’t want to have anything to do with Italy’s problems, so more and more of them call for a secession from Rome.
For a long time, the French state tried to completely crowd out the Corsican language from public life and the island’s schools. Attempts to gain autonomy were fought. Militant groups, mostly the FLNC, have tried for years to get rid of France with violence, by attacking representatives or symbols of the French states and continental French citizens’ vacation homes.
This summer, the FLNC announced that they would not use violence anymore. But the potential for conflict remains: careful suggestions for autonomy by the socialist French government under Lionel Jospin in 2000 angered the conservative opposition. They believed that if autonomy was granted, other regions like the Bretagne or Alsace would also ask for independence. Traditionally, Paris has little respect for regional languages, since politicians in the French capital consider them dangerous for the unity of the country.
Few Bavarians probably seriously consider founding their own state. Bavaria already has “state” in its official name of “Freistaat Bayern” – the free state of Bavaria. But Germany’s southernmost state could probably survive on its own. It’s the largest German state area-wise. With more than 13 million inhabitants, it has more people than Sweden or Portugal and one of the highest economic performances of any German state. Should the wish for more Bavarian autonomy arise, then it would be because of the “Länderfinanzausgleich” – an agreement that the more wealthy German states support the poorer ones. Bayern would like to pay less into the large pot. Bavarian secessionists do exist: the conservative politician Wilfried Scharnagel (CSU) calls for Bavaria’s separation from Germany in his 2012 book. But so far, no larger movement has arisen.