The Egoists' Hour: Debt Crisis Gives European Separatists a Boost

By , Hans Hoyng, and Helene Zuber

The debt crisis is fueling the fortunes of separatists in a handful of European Union countries. Affluent regions in Spain, Britain, Belgium and Italy no longer feel a sense of solidarity with poorer parts of their own countries -- but they want to remain part of the EU.

Photo Gallery: Separatist Movements in Europe Photos
AP

Artur Mas stood there like a veritable head of state, flanked by the Catalonian flag with its four red stripes on a yellow background. Standing in the Gothic inner courtyard of the Palau de la Generalitat, the seat of the regional government in Barcelona, he offered sharp criticism of the central government in Madrid, calling the distribution of burdens within Spain "unfair and disloyal." Catalonia, he said, must free itself of Spain's complicated café para todos, or coffee for all policy, the system that sees the country divided into 17 "autonomous communities". Mas has little regard for Spain's complicated alliance of regions.

Mas, president of the region of Catalonia, is pulling away from Madrid. He has brought forward regional elections to Nov. 25, and he hopes to secure an absolute majority. This, he says, would guarantee him "a unique leadership position for the process of self-determination." That, in turn, would enable Mas to have his fellow Catalonians vote in a referendum over whether to secede from Spain.

A referendum would violate the Spanish constitution, and yet Mas feels buoyed by the exuberance of Catalan nationalism. In September, more than a million Catalans marched through the streets of Barcelona, waving their flag, known as the Senyera, and demonstrating for "a new country in Europe."

'Fatigue'

Mas, the head of the alliance of parties known as Convergència i Unió (Convergence and Union), compared the "fatigue" of his fellow Catalans to the feelings that many people in Northern Europe now have for Southern Europeans. The Catalans, who make up one-fifth of Spain's total economic output, have grown tired of "not making any progress within Spain." For the last 30 years, says Mas, the central government has invested too little in his region.

Just as concerns are growing in Europe over Spain's government finances, the economically powerful Basque Country is also on the rise. Polls show that the separatists are likely to do well in Basque regional elections scheduled for the Sunday after next.

Spain isn't the only country where the economic crisis is fueling independence movements. The Scots are planning to hold a referendum on independence in the fall of 2014. In Northern Ireland, Molotov cocktails are flying through the air and shots are occasionally being fired. And in communal elections in Belgium next Sunday, the leader of the Flemish separatists, Bart de Wever, stands a good chance of being elected mayor of Antwerp, the country's commercial capital. His supporters see the office in the largest Flemish city as a springboard for the position of leader of an independent Flemish state.

In Italy, many residents of the South Tyrol region no longer feel responsible for the corrupt south, with its mountain of debt, or for the scandals in Latium and Sicily. In April, thousands of South Tyrolean marksmen wearing lederhosen marched through the capital of the province of Alto Adige, the Italian name for South Tyrol. But the men, chanting "Independence from Rome," weren't there to celebrate local culture.

Regions Demand Independence

It seems paradoxical. Since World War II, the countries of Europe have seen an increasingly close-knit union as a way to resolve historic conflicts. In the process, European nations have gradually surrendered various powers to Brussels. When a core group agreed on the introduction of a common currency, it was clear to most of them that they would eventually have to complete the process with a political union.

But now that countries are increasingly losing their national sovereignty, many regions in Europe are demanding independence. Just as a north-south conflict is taking shape in the euro zone, independence movements are also building within countries, especially in prosperous regions. Everywhere, populists are on the rise, as they make the case for a new egoism.

South Tyrol, which Italy annexed from Austria after World War I, has an unemployment rate of only 4.1 percent, one of the lowest in the European Union. It has a model social welfare and healthcare system. Now the South Tyroleans are worried that they could lose the privileges and subsidies to which they have been entitled since the signing of an autonomy agreement in 1972. They also feel less and less responsible for the Italian crisis.

The anti-Italy mood is fueled by Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti's most recent austerity reform program. Because of the "national emergency" -- a national debt of about €2 trillion ($2.6 trillion) -- Monti wants South Tyrol to reduce its spending by €750 million. But this contradicts the written guarantee that 90 percent of tax revenue collected in South Tyrol is to be returned to the province.

Negotiations have begun between Rome and the region's capital, Bolzano. But the nationalist parties, which hold more than a fifth of the seats in the regional parliament, are fomenting anger among citizens who don't want to be dragged down by the rest of Italy.

The success of Antwerp mayoral candidate de Wever, with his anti-Belgian agenda, also stems largely from widespread dissatisfaction among most Flemish people that their money is flowing to the poorer south. "Belgium is a transfer union in which the Flemish democracy contributes more than its fair share to the federation," says the leader of the Neo-Flemish Alliance.

Since Elio Di Rupo, a socialist from Belgium's southern half, the French-speaking Walloon region, took over as head of a coalition government of Socialists, Christian Democrats and Liberals in the joint capital Brussels in 2011, the Flemish separatists, sharply critical of what they call "checkbook federalism," have made gains among voters. It is indeed true that up to €6 billion a year is transferred from wealthy Flanders to poorer Wallonia.

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