Europe

No, Europe Isn't About to Break Up

Belgium may be a refuge for Catalan separatists, but it's not splitting up either.

How do you divide this in a divorce?

Photographer: Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images

Those who are always on the lookout for the next European crisis -- Brexiters not least among them -- have latched on to Catalonia's symbolic "secession" as another sign that Europe isn't working well. The Catalan events, however, merely confirm that today, Western European countries are secession-proof -- too fat to fail. Belgium, the country where ousted Catalan First Minister Carles Puigdemont is hiding out from prosecution (or, to Catalan secessionists, leading a government in exile) is another good example.

Puigdemont, ordered to appear in court in Madrid on Thursday to face charges of rebellion, sedition and misuse of public funds, is in Belgium because that country has a secessionist movement a lot like the Catalan one. It's strong in the wealthier and more economically dynamic Flemish part of the country. Catalonia, with 16 percent of Spain's population, provides almost 26 percent of the country's exports. Flanders, with 58 percent of Belgium's population, delivers 82 percent of exports. 

The historically secessionist Belgian party, the New Flemish Alliance (N-VA) is a partner in Belgium's ruling coalition, headed by Prime Minister Charles Michel, leader of the Reformist Movement, a Francophone party.  It controls some key portfolios, including migration. Theo Francken, the migration minister, has made sympathetic noises about Puigdemont's predicament, although Michel has made it clear they don't amount to any kind of official invitation. But the hapless Catalan politician can count on informal support from N-VA colleagues and on the kind of competent legal defense Belgian lawyer Paul Bekaert previously offered to Basque separatists who fought extradition from Belgium to Spain.

But the unofficial nature of that support network highlights the main similarity between the Flemish and Catalan separatist movements: Despite the strong pro-independence rhetoric, they are really about strong autonomy and decentralization, not secession.

There are other similarities: For example, both the Catalan secessionists and the N-VA are republican movements within monarchies, both militate for a weaker language (Catalan, the Flemish dialect of Dutch) in the presence of a stronger international one, and both want more control over sharing their regional wealth with the bigger country's poorer areas. But the Flemish, given their numerical and economic strength, have done better than the Catalans at what Marcel Gerard from Belgium's Catholic University of Louvain has called "an evolutionary and maybe endless repeated game" of devolution. Politically, Belgium is a weak federation in which the regions are unusually powerful. Recently, the Walloon regional parliament nearly derailed the European Union's free trade agreement with Canada, because Belgium couldn't approve it without the regions' say-so. 

In the latest reform of the Belgian federation, which began in 2011, the Flemish succeeded in splitting the country's social safety net by moving certain competences such as child allowances and certain kinds of health care from the federal to the regional level. This is a level of autonomy of which Catalonia can't even dream. 

Splitting up Belgium completely, however, makes little economic sense. The country's public debt of 106 percent gross domestic product is a big problem: Francophone Wallonia cannot shoulder its fair part of the burden, so trying to divide it up would cause a dramatic rise in borrowing rates for Flanders, too. Besides, there's the matter of Brussels -- a largely French-speaking international city that is a separate part of the federation, although it's surrounded by Flemish territory. In a breakup, it's unlikely that Brussels would become part of either Flanders or Wallonia, and its economic input and status as an international hub would be lost to both. 

In the Catalan independence scenario, the issue of splitting up Spain's debt, which stands at 99 percent GDP, would also be a major issue. But few have considered the effect on Barcelona, a rich and vibrant international city of major importance to both Catalonia and Spain. Its status as an international hub would suffer from secession. When I was in Barcelona last week, Ruben Enikolopov, a Russian economist working at Barcelona's Pompeu Fabra University, told me his colleagues openly envy (if somewhat tongue-in-cheek) his plan to spend more time in Moscow next year. Even Vladimir Putin's capital city looks like a safe haven compared with a Barcelona faced with Catalan secession. The city's powerful mayor, Ada Colau, did not back secession because it would feed social unrest and uncertainty.

Splitting a country carries an inevitable cost for its citizens, and especially the ones in big cities dependent on frictionless international travel, cross-border funding for cultural and academic projects, and seamless economic relations. Separatist movements have to be noisy if they are to succeed at the game of federalization and devolution, but ordinary citizens know and worry about the potential cost, even if they sympathize with the rhetoric. In Flanders, about 40 percent of the population votes for separatist parties. In Catalonia and in Scotland, where people rejected independence in a 2014 referendum largely to avoid economic pain, polls show roughly the same level of support for secession. That's enough to matter, but not enough to win.

The recognition, and rejection, of the economic cost is the biggest reason why the independence movements in Catalonia, Belgium and Scotland are nonviolent. Even those who vote for secession won't fight for independence because they don't feel they stand to gain much from it -- and because, in wealthy countries such as Spain, Belgium and the U.K., they feel they have something to lose.

It's a mistake to take secessionist rhetoric at face value, although some brands of it, such as Puigdemont's claim to leading a government in exile, as expressed by his website's new address -- president.exili.eu -- are more worthless than others. It can have a constructive effect, though, by feeding decentralization -- a trend that doesn't have to weaken Europe or even its constituent nation states. After all, government is most effective when it's close to the governed. It keeps them happier and more aware that their life is too good for radical change. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Therese Raphael at traphael4@bloomberg.net

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