Catalonia’s Setback May Not Stop the Advance of EU Separatists

  • Scotland seeking a second referendum on independence
  • Spain’s Basques watching events in Barcelona closely

Barclays' Fernandez Says Catalan Question Not Over

Europe’s separatist movements aren’t going away.

While the threat of an immediate rupture in Spain has been averted for now, resentment simmers from Edinburgh to Venice. The frustrations stirred up by continent’s economic woes might have manifested themselves as an anti-immigrant populism in eastern Germany or the French rustbelt; but in Bruges, in Bilbao and in Barcelona they spurred separatist movements seeking to break away from Europe’s traditional nation states and strike out on their own.

“The Madrid-Barcelona standoff, Spain’s heavy-handed response to Catalonia’s independence referendum, and the European Union’s failure to stop the slide into confrontation have dangerous repercussions,” said Shada Islam, director of Europe and geopolitics at the Friends of Europe think tank in Brussels. “Spanish democracy, the EU’s standing with an already-jaded European public, and the future of other European separatist movements” could all be shaped by events over the past couple of weeks, she added.

Many of Europe’s modern nation states were forged out of the ashes of 19th century wars, and as they’ve bound themselves more tightly over the past 20 years, with a single currency and open borders, their ancient regions have become restless. While national identities have been blurred under the umbrella of the 28-nation EU, regional individuality has flourished. And where once that was confined to language, music and flags, now it’s about political independence.

Catalonia Retreats

Catalonia held an illegal referendum on independence Oct. 1, prompting scenes of police violence against peaceful voters that drew international condemnation and inflamed the separatists. Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has vowed to keep Spain together come what may, and on Tuesday night the Catalan leader, Carles Puigdemont, stepped back from a declaration of independence, appealing instead for Rajoy to enter talks.

Until now, the U.K. looked the most likely country to break up. In 2014, Scotland held a referendum, though unlike in Spain it was sanctioned by the national government. Scots, who make up less than a tenth of the British population, voted 55 percent to 45 percent to remain part of the U.K., but the vote failed to put the issue to rest.

In the Brexit referendum of 2016, Scotland voted strongly for the U.K. to stay in the EU and Scots now face being pushed out of the bloc by the overall U.K. result. That’s prompted Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the Scottish National Party, to promise to continue her push for independence.

“We will consider the timing again when we have more clarity on what we face,” Sturgeon told the BBC this week. The case for independence “is becoming greater and stronger by the day.”

Belgian Sensitivity

While a break-away isn’t imminent in the Dutch-speaking northern half of Belgium, the rumblings continue. Flemish nationalists, the biggest group in that region, became part of the country’s ruling coalition for the first time in 2014, and while they’ve put to one side calls for independence, they’re heartened by the separatist resurgence across Europe.
“The Catalans have the right to express themselves,” the Flemish party said in a statement last week, accusing the EU of looking “the other way” when a national government “shoots at and beats up its own citizens to make the exercise of a democratic basic right impossible.”

That French-Dutch faultline makes Belgian politicians particularly sensitive to other independence movements around Europe and Prime Minister Charles Michel, from the country’s poorer French-speaking region, was the first EU leader to break ranks over Catalonia. After the violence on Oct. 1, Michel called for “political dialogue.” The European Commission insists it’s an internal matter for Spain.

The Commission also says that any region that secedes from a member state will find itself outside the bloc -- and cut off from its markets and financial system. That’s a particular source of frustration for separatists, who tend to be favorable to the European Union because it serves as a counterweight to the nation-state.

“The future of more than 70 European nations, the future of Catalonia, the future of my own Flemish community, lies not in brutal separation, but lies in deep cooperation -- cooperation inside federal structures in a federal Europe,” Guy Verhofstadt, a former Belgian prime minister, told the European Parliament last week.

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