Europe’s Richer Regions Want Out

Catalonia may be the catalyst for a renewed wave of separatism in the European Union, with Scotland and Flanders not far behind. The great paradox of the European Union, which is built on the concept of shared sovereignty, is that it lowers the stakes for regions to push for independence.

The 'Europe' sculpture by Belgian artist May Claerhout, showing a woman holding up the symbol of the Euro, stands outside the European Parliament building on November 22, 2011 in Brussels, Belgium.
Adam Berry | Getty Images
The 'Europe' sculpture by Belgian artist May Claerhout, showing a woman holding up the symbol of the Euro, stands outside the European Parliament building on November 22, 2011 in Brussels, Belgium.

While a post-national European Union may be emerging out of the euro zone crisis, with a drive for more fiscal union and more centralized control over national budgets and banks, the crisis has accelerated calls for independence from member countries’ richer regions, angry at having to finance poorer neighbors.

Artur Mas, the Catalan president, recently shook Spain and the markets with a call for early regional elections and promised a referendum on independence from Spain, although Madrid considers it illegal. Scotland is planning an independence referendum for the autumn of 2014. The Flemish in Flanders have achieved nearly total autonomy, both administrative and linguistic, but still resent what they consider to be the holdover hegemony of the French-speakers of Wallonia and the Brussels elite, emotions that will be on display in provincial and communal elections Oct. 14.

There are countless things that hold unhappy countries, like marriages, together — shared history, shared wars, shared children, shared enemies. But the economic crisis in the European Union is also highlighting old grievances.

Many in Catalonia and Flanders, for example, argue that they pay significantly more into the national treasury than they receive, even as national governments cut public services. In this sense, the regional argument is the euro zone argument writ small, as richer northern countries like Germany, Finland and Austria complain that their comparative wealth and success are being drained to keep countries like Greece, Portugal and Spain afloat.

The crisis has also produced a loss of confidence in traditional leadership, with voters punishing incumbents and mainstream political parties. That has helped more atavistic nationalist parties, like the National Front in France and Golden Dawn in Greece. But in separatist regions, the same disaffection tends to favor parties advocating independence.

“The whole development of European integration has lowered the stakes for separation, because the entities that emerge know they don’t have to be fully autonomous and free-standing,” said Mark Leonard, the director of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “They know they’ll have access to a market of 500 million people and some of the protections of the E.U.”

Heather Grabbe, who worked for five years as a political adviser to the E.U.’s commissioner for enlargement, agreed: “If you’re a small country in the E.U., like Malta or Luxembourg, you’re likely to be overrepresented in Brussels compared to your size, so go for it.” Now the Brussels director for the Open Society Institute, Ms. Grabbe said the key variable for separatism is less a matter of money than of historical grievance and language.

“A lot of the pressure is about revisiting old settlements and defeats and agreements about who commits what to central budgets,” she said. “But when it comes to the crunch, it’s not about money but national myths — what kind of people we are, meta-narratives and emotions: ‘Do we feel oppressed? Do we feel safe enough to leave?’ Ghosts of history return, and while economics plays a role, in the end people vote with their hearts.”

But the crisis has also presented a real conundrum for regional leaders, because it has undermined the attraction of the European Union. In Scotland, for example, there was an assumption that if independent, it would join the bloc without a lot of fuss, since Scots are already citizens of the European Union. (After all, some 20 million East Germans became members of the European Union overnight without even having to whistle the anthem.) But would Scotland inherit the British “opt out” from the euro, or, as a new E.U. state, would it have to commit to the euro? And if so, who would be responsible for bailing out the Bank of Scotland, if it came to that?

As euroskepticism rises in the United Kingdom, these issues have come to bedevil Alex Salmond, the leader of the Scottish National Party, whose slogan is “Scotland in Europe.” The 2014 referendum is supposedly timed to the 700th anniversary of a decisive episode in the first war for Scottish independence, the Battle of Bannockburn.

Traditionally, the European Union has been popular with the leaders of these regions, said Josef Janning, director of studies at the European Policy Center. “They see strengthening the power of Brussels as diminishing and relativizing national governments, a process accelerated by the single market in Europe,” Mr. Janning said. Many of them have formed regional groupings that bypass the central government — Catalonia, along with Baden-Württemberg in Germany, Rhône-Alpes in France and Lombardy in Italy, for example, are regional powerhouses that call themselves “the four motors for Europe” and together have a bigger G.D.P. than Spain.

“But now,” Mr. Janning went on to say, “comes the crisis,” which presents a dilemma for the regions, because it also means a reconcentration of power by national capitals trying to cut the national budget. “Now eyes are again on Madrid and Rome and Paris and Berlin,” he said, “so regional opportunities are squeezed, and the affluent are made to pay.”

While European leaders believe the answer to the crisis is “more Europe,” which would ordinarily please separatist regions, European voters and taxpayers are shaken, skeptical and angry. Mr. Janning told me: “These regional entities and leaders need to be on the right side of public sentiment and feel close to public opinion and regional identity. So now they’re torn.”

The case of the Basques is a good example. With the defeat of the independence army ETA, which announced the “definitive cessation” of the armed struggle a year ago, the Basques are doing well. They are watching Catalonia and Scotland carefully, but their level of autonomy is already so high, with their own virtual embassies abroad and control over their own taxes, unlike Catalonia, that independence can, to the Basque public, seem destabilizing.

There are also larger anxieties at play, as the frozen world of the cold war slowly melts. For nearly half a century after World War II, until the Soviet collapse, there were few if any border changes in Europe, east or west, with bizarre outcroppings like Transnistria or Kaliningrad, or a divided Berlin paralyzed in amber. The years that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall and the implosion of the Soviet Union were an effort, Ms. Grabbe noted, “to find a new normal.”

European (and NATO) enlargement to the east was a major accomplishment, but it distorted the cores of both organizations, especially the European Union. And now with the new crisis of the euro, “Europe seems shakier, there’s so much anxiety,” Ms. Grabbe said. “Some of these taboo questions,” she said, “are coming out again,” with economic, legal and ethnic trouble re-emerging in the new states, like Hungary and Romania, and new divisions in the old ones.

Mr. Leonard, of the European Council on Foreign Relations, said he was recently in Barcelona, where Catalan officials were obsessively asking him about Scotland. “Their knowledge of internal Scottish affairs was much bigger than mine,” he said. “So it’s clear they’re all watching and playing off one another.”