Britain is gripped by a new separatist controversy, after leading Scottish ministers declared their intention to hold a public referendum on independence from the United Kingdom in 2014. While the Scottish independence movement is not new, this highlights a changing climate for Europe’s numerous separatist and independence movements.
The blame game of the financial crisis and the option of joining the EU as an alternative path to prosperity is bringing strength to the previously sidelined independence groups that dot Europe. From the Balkans to Scotland, such movements may soon start to challenge traditional borders and leave European states vulnerable to increased pressure to split.
Though European independence disputes are little discussed in the U.S., they criss-cross the continent. Some are obvious, such as the divided state of Cyprus, unstable regions in the Balkans, or the terrorist campaigns of Northern Ireland and the Basque country in Spain.
Yet the Scottish referendum move demonstrates another, quieter form of separatism which is gaining increased support. From Corsica to Flanders, and Cornwall to Catalan, these are regions of Europe’s larger states that claim a distinct historical right to independence.
Fuelled by media savvy local officials, such groups are now increasingly vocal in their demands. They are largely peaceful, democratic movements — often with a very middle-class face — and their demands take the form of calls for “devolved” decision making powers, if not outright claims of the right to separate from their national capital.
Though many are inclined to disregard such movements as quaint or fanciful, the recent Scottish bid highlights two trends which should make any national official sit up and listen.
Firstly, Europe’s continually-degrading financial crisis is making it easier to vilify national governments. The ministers who “let it get this way” are now being turned upon by disgruntled electorates.
For Scotland, the accusation that reckless stockbrokers in London have impoverished Glasgow has gained a great deal of political traction. Claims an independent Scotland could escape the current Tory government’s sharp austerity cuts are also popular. The rights and wrongs of this debate are irrelevant — it makes a good campaign platform for independence.
Secondly, the EU is increasingly held up as an example of a path to prosperity for independence movements. The EU now has 27 members, up from just 15 in 2000. The fact many of these new member states are small, both geographically and in terms of population, means independence movements can reasonably claim that however tiny their population, they could seek EU membership to secure their interests.
Indeed in Scotland, EU membership is held up as a potential “power multiplier” abroad, as they would have a member state vote in the EU, putting them on an even footing with larger states during policy debates.
None of this is to say that the current climate guarantees the creation of new separatist states in the coming years. But these trends highlight the uncomfortable reality that many European capitals now face well-organized and politically persuasive separatist movements.
Indeed, the continent that has backed the secession of many nearby countries since the end of the Cold War may soon see grassroots democratic challenges to their own territorial integrity.
European politicians need to stop casually belittling such movements, and take their demands more seriously.
Photo Credit: subberculture