Photo Gallery: Separatist Movements in Europe

Foto: Emilio Morenatti/ AP

The Egoists' Hour Debt Crisis Gives European Separatists a Boost

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.

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."


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.

A 'No' To Spain, But a 'Yes' to Europe

In Spain, it is the regions where industrial production is concentrated that no longer want to see their fates tied to the central government. The Basque Country has the highest per-capita income of all of Spain's regions, and the Catalans are net contributors to the national budget.

Under the constitution in place since the end of the Franco dictatorship, Spain is organized as a nation of so-called autonomous communities. While each of these 17 regions has the right of self-administration, the nation is defined as an "indissoluble unit." The central government in Madrid collects most taxes and returns funds to the regional governments. In times of crisis, these funds decline. But the regions need the money to pay for the growing costs of schools, universities, medical care, police and the judiciary. Only the Basque Country and Navarre have retained the historic right to manage all of the taxes they collect autonomously.

When Catalan President Mas took office two years ago, he was determined to wrest a similar taxing authority from Madrid. Last week, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and the presidents of the other regions put an end to his ambitions. Without tax revenues from Catalonia, Spain would lose its position as the fourth-largest economic power in the European Union. Rajoy argues that it's important to display unity to the markets.

Separatists complain that Madrid is robbing Catalonia. Although Catalan President Mas has implemented a strict course of austerity for the last two years, the region has lost more and more jobs. As a result, debt has risen to a record high among Spain's regions of €44 billion. The rating agencies have downgraded Catalonia's creditworthiness to junk status. Mas was recently forced to ask Madrid for more than €5 billion from a regional bailout fund.

Better Off Alone?

The humiliated Catalans argue that they would be better off alone, as an independent country. In a recent poll, the Institute for Social Research found that more than half the population of 7.3 million would vote for independence in a referendum.

The mood is similar in the Basque Country. "Divorces are usually decided by one side," Iñigo Urkullu, president of the Basque National Party (PNB), said in late September. Urkullu is seen as the frontrunner in early regional elections on Oct. 21. Secession is not part of his initial plan, he says; instead, he wants to improve the region's interactions with the rest of the country. He wants to develop a new state constitution that defines the Basque Country's relationship to the central government "on a level playing field."

But voters could make the Euskal Herria-Bildu (EHB) coalition, the heirs of the political arm of the ETA terrorist organization, the second-most-powerful force behind his PNB. In last year's communal and national parliamentary elections, EHB even managed to surpass the moderate nationalists. If Urkullu were dependent on the EHB, he would likely be forced to make concessions to the radicals, who want secession from Spain.

Both the separatist Basques and the Catalans see their future as being within the European Union, with its common currency. Ironically, however, it was European Commission President José Manuel Durão Barroso who dashed those hopes, by pointing out that a newly created nation could not automatically become a member of the EU. Instead, new negotiations would be needed, and acceptance would require a unanimous vote by all EU member states.

The same applies to Scotland. In the 18th century, Edinburgh, a center of the Enlightenment in Europe, was proud of its unofficial title as the "Athens of the North." Today, many fear that this title could soon apply once again, albeit for different reasons.

Should the referendum in two years truly yield a majority in favor of a sovereign Scotland, it could very well emerge as a new marginal state in Europe rather than a self-confident nation. It would have more in common with Ireland or Greece than the Scots would prefer.

So far, the nationals have argued that Scotland, liberated from the dictates of England's euro-skeptics, could face a golden era as an independent country. The new republic could exploit its North Sea oil alone and would also benefit from the introduction of the euro. Ireland was long a role model for Scotland, after the Irish had demonstrated that even a small country could attract investors from around the world.

But the financial crisis has dashed many hopes. Ireland is struggling with its debt, and the boom there has ended. But this hasn't discouraged Scotland's nationalists. Now that the euro zone is in trouble, they no longer talk about introducing the common currency right away. And Ireland, after having received a bailout, is no longer their role model. Instead, the Scots now look to the Scandinavian social welfare states for inspiration.

Fears of an IRA Comeback

Meanwhile, the political success of the Scottish nationalists is encouraging extremists in Northern Ireland. In a grim reminder of the horrific old days, a newly established group called the "New IRA" is issuing communiqués in which it discusses the "necessity of armed struggle in pursuit of Irish freedom." The group is once again declaring British military forces and Irish police officers to be "legitimate targets." Security experts estimate the number of Catholic militants prepared to use violence at only a few hundred.

Nevertheless, there are growing fears of an IRA comeback, partly as a result of the recession in Great Britain. The former combatants in the Northern Ireland conflict have since turned into politicians, kept happy with official posts. For instance, Martin McGuiness, the deputy first minister of Northern Ireland, used to be an IRA commander. But now young people are rebelling in the slums of Belfast and Derry, people who haven't benefited from peace or the economic boom of recent years. Many blame Britain for their troubles. The New IRA wants unification with the Republic of Ireland.

This probably isn't what Swiss philosopher Denis de Rougemont, the man whose ideas inspired the founding fathers of the EU, imagined when he developed the idea of a "Europe of regions." His concept revolved around cross-border cooperation and the surrender of sovereignty to an overriding entity: Europe. The European Union, unlike the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, was not supposed to consist of a collection of small, autocratic countries.

While the existence of countries like Britain and Spain would not be threatened by the secession of individual regions, in a worst-case scenario Belgium, a founding country of the European Union, could disappear altogether. The country essentially consists of two parts: Flanders in the north and Wallonia in the south. If a majority of Flemings voted for independence, Belgium would "evaporate," as historian de Wever likes to say.

But the Flemish separatist leader is in fact pursuing a pro-European agenda. De Wever believes that fiscal and social policies are better handled at the regional level, while the EU should be in charge of foreign policy. The concept could also appeal to the Basques, Catalans, Scots and South Tyroleans.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan