By Robert Hart
With the flames of Spain’s constitutional crisis over a declaration of independence by the government of its north-eastern region of Catalonia still burning brightly, national leaders around Europe are on edge, alert for any signs that the secessionist bug may be contagious.
Keenly watching are dozens of parties, groups and sects in a string of European countries that nurse separatist ambitions or seek greater autonomy. They could be stirred into pressing their own case by what they are seeing in Catalonia, a prosperous but historically restive region with its own language and culture.
The crisis was triggered by a Catalan referendum on independence on October 1, rejected as illegal by the Spanish government. Violent clashes between voters and Spanish police, flown into Barcelona and other cities to try to block the vote, prompted alarmed headlines around Europe and beyond.
Catalan president Carles Puigdemont formally declared independence. The Spanish government immediately sacked the regional government, dissolved the Catalan parliament, imposed direct rule from Madrid and called snap regional elections for December 21.
Why has Catalonia’s independence movement gained pace now? Secessionists, backed by anti-EU parties, hold a slim minority in the regional parliament, which they took advantage of to ram through the referendum law. Madrid’s hard-nosed crackdown, while defended by unionists as a necessary response to what they consider Catalonia’s unconstitutional move, may actually have stoked sympathy for secessionists.
Several Catalan government ministers and officials face charges of sedition and rebellion. Puigdemont fled to Belgium, where he now awaits a Brussels court decision, due on November 17, on whether to execute a European arrest warrant issued by Spain.
Puigdemont said he made his dash to Brussels because he wanted to take his case for Catalan independence to the heart of the European Union. But many believe he chose Belgium as a country with its own sharp regional divisions where he could get a sympathetic hearing.
Flanders and Wallonia
Flemish nationalists in the prosperous, mainly Dutch-speaking northern region of Flanders have long sought secession from Belgium via peaceful constitutional change. They back Catalan independence. Like many Catalans, they believe they would be better off as a separate state.
The majority French-speaking region of Wallonia, in the south, wants to remain part of Belgium while defending its own cultural identity. Independence movements and groups calling for Wallonia to be incorporated into France have so far attracted little support.
Puigdemont’s arrival in the Belgian capital sent shock waves through the coalition government, with Flemish nationalists firing furious blasts at the Madrid government over its treatment of Catalan independence leaders.
Jan Jambon, the country’s deputy prime minister, told a local broadcaster: “When the police go in to beat people up, we can ask ourselves some questions. When the Spanish state has locked up leaders of public opinion, I ask myself questions.”
The New Flemish Alliance is the largest party in the federal parliament. As part of a fragile coalition, it has eased its separatist demands, but it can be expected to push for more devolution after 2019 elections that could even lead to Belgium’s eventual split.
In that extreme, Belgium would lose more than half of its people and economy, raising doubts about the status of Brussels as EU capital and host to NATO, as well as the future of Wallonia.
Lombardy and Veneto
By coincidence, at the height of the Catalan drama, two rich, north Italian regions — Lombardy and Veneto — held legal, non-binding referendums, winning solid support for seeking greater autonomy from the central government in Rome.
The area is Italy’s industrial powerhouse and home to two of the country’s major cities, Milan in Lombardy and Venice in Veneto. Between them they account for a quarter of Italy’s population and produce 30 per cent of the country’s economic output.
Many in the north of Italy — like the Catalans — resent the fact that poorer regions in the south are benefiting from their hard-earned money.
In both regions, the largest political party is the Northern League, which originally wanted a complete split from the rest of Italy and has a strong presence in the north of the country. But in recent years its focus has shifted away from a clean break and towards more control over finances.
Now both regions want a cut in the tax bills they receive from the Italian government each year and were seeking a popular mandate to give them more clout in talks with Rome.
“It’s obvious that the more negotiating power I have, the more money I can bring home,” Lombardy president Roberto Maroni said.
He sought to distance the Italian votes from the situation in Spain. “We are not Catalonia,” Maroni said after the Lombardy referendum. “We remain inside the Italian nation with more autonomy, while Catalonia wants to become the 29th state of the European Union. We, no. Not for now.”
Scotland began seeking home rule in the mid-19th century, and the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) has campaigned for independence from the United Kingdom since it was founded in 1934.
A country within the UK, Scotland’s devolved legislature has had responsibility for a wide range of powers since 1999. More than 84 per cent of Scottish voters cast ballots in an independence referendum in 2014, with 44.7 per cent voting in favor but 55.3 per cent against.
Independence sentiments rose again in 2016 when a UK referendum on the nation’s membership of the European Union produced a surprise majority in favor of leaving the bloc, provoking alarm about the possible effects of Brexit on Scotland’s future.
SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon, who is also Scotland’s First Minister, insisted that her country, which voted solidly to remain in the EU, should not be forced to automatically leave along with the rest of the UK.
The independence battle in Catalonia has made waves in Scotland, and groups of SNP supporters could be seen in TV reports, enthusiastically joining pro-independence rallies in Barcelona. Sturgeon published a message of solidarity with the Catalan government.
She has suggested she might go for another independence vote in 2018 when the details and possible effects of Brexit are clearer. But opinion polls indicate the result would probably be the same as in 2014.
France has long tried to suppress the Mediterranean island’s local language, which it views as a threat to national unity, and has strongly resisted independence movements.
The National Liberation Front of Corsica (FLNC) attacked French state representatives and symbols before announcing an end to hostilities in 2014. But the potential for conflict remains, and unrest in Spain could set pulses racing.
Then French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin made proposals in the early 2000s to allow for some autonomy, but this was rejected by the opposition, who feared other regions would then want to break away.
In 2015, a pro-autonomy coalition won 24 of 51 Corsican assembly seats, giving them long sought-after political clout. And late last year, the FLNC announced an end to “military operations” — but without pledging to lay down weapons.
Brittany, jutting out from the northern French coast into the Bay of Biscay and the English Channel, has a strong cultural identity and is considered one of the six Celtic nations, with Cornwall, Ireland, the Isle of Man, Scotland and Wales.
Breton nationalists seek self-rule, within or outside France, as well as the defense and promotion of Breton music, traditions and symbols, including the Breton language, which is spoken by about 200,000 people.
A 2013 poll found that 18 percent of Bretons support independence, while 37 percent said they would describe themselves as Breton first, compared with 48 percent who saw themselves as French first.
Bavaria seems solidly German — think Lederhosen and Sauerkraut. But Bavarian nationalism has been strong since the state’s incorporation into Germany in 1871. A separatist Bavaria party was a significant player in the 1950s, but its electoral share fell over subsequent decades.
However, a 2017 poll showed one in three Bavarians favored independence.
At the smallest end of the separatist scale, Denmark’s Faroe Islands, home to 48,000 people, will hold a referendum in April 2018 on a new constitution that would grant self-determination.
The islands have been autonomous since 1948, although foreign affairs and defense are still the domain of Copenhagen.
Finally, turning back to Spain, the Basque separatist group ETA (Euskadi ta Askatasuna – Basque Homeland and Freedom) was founded in 1959 to promote the culture of the Basque region straddling the French-Spanish border.
But it developed into a 50-year violent independence campaign blamed for 829 deaths. The group carried out its last attack in 2010 and reportedly disarmed in April this year.
After ETA declared an end to violence in 2011, pro-independence parties, notably the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), began to find openings in the regional political set-up, and the regional government now is led by the PNV, giving them new-found political clout.
The Basque Country enjoys more autonomy than any of Spain’s 17 regions, tempering the urge for independence. It alone gets to keep the taxes it collects. They would still like to be independent, but they might now just be more realistic than the Catalans.
Still, some former ETA members have joined a Franco-Spanish Basque political party called Sortu that is working for “full freedom” for the region’s 2.2 million people.
On October 1, 40,000 people demonstrated in Bilbao in support of Catalonia’s referendum. The regional president, Inigo Urkullu, had earlier called for recognition of the Catalan and Basque nations.
(For more stories on Catalonia’s independence movement, click here.)
Robert Hart was a correspondent and regional editor for Reuters for more than 35 years, reporting on the Vietnam war, West Germany during Chancellor Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik and as bureau chief in Spain for five years in the 1990s. In between he was Asian News Editor based in Singapore and Latin America Editor, based in Buenos Aires during the military “dirty war” of the late 1970s.