With the eurozone’s woes still dominating headlines four years after the crisis began, it would be natural to assume that the European Union’s economic challenges were the most significant issue affecting its member states. But while the euro crisis has been simmering, separatist movements championed by charismatic leaders have patiently gathered strength in places such as Catalonia, Scotland, and Flanders.
The poor performance of the governing Convergence and Union (CiU) party in Catalonia’s regional elections on November 25 means that its leader, Artur Mas, must now curry favor with other pro-independence parties in order for a referendum to be approved by the Catalan government. Mariano Rajoy, Spain’s prime minister, has vowed to block any referendum, deeming it contrary to Spain’s 1978 constitution. But it is not just a national constitution that could scupper Catalan separatists’ plans. The European Union holds considerable sway over the outcome. Polls show that 53 percent of Catalans would vote “yes” in a referendum for secession, but this number jumps to 62 percent if the Catalan government can guarantee its automatic entrance into the EU.
Responses from EU officials to the prospect of Catalan independence have ranged from practical to enigmatic. José Manuel Barosso, president of the European Commission, has signaled that any new country would have to apply to become an EU member state, which would then be subject to a consensus decision by existing members. Given Rajoy’s opposition to an independence referendum, Spain could then still veto the breakaway region’s EU entry. Joaquín Almunia, vice president of the European Commission, has been less forthcoming with his opinions. Speaking to the Spanish press, Almunia said that he could not give an “emphatic yes or no” as to whether Catalonia would automatically remain in the EU if it became independent.
Mas’ ambition for an independent state also serves as a cautionary tale for other regions harboring separatist sentiments within the European Union, such as Scotland and Flanders. In Flanders, pro-partition parties such as Bart de Wever’s New Flemish Alliance (NVA) gained seats in recent council elections. Although de Wever is not asking for outright independence via a referendum, he is aiming for even more autonomy for the Dutch-speaking region. However, if de Wever were to succeed, it could be a meaningful step towards holding a referendum on the region’s independence.
Scotland already functions as a semi-independent state within the United Kingdom after powers were devolved from the U.K. Parliament in 1998. But a 307-year-old union meant to produce peace and stability may finally allow democracy to result in a breakup from within. 2014 will witness a referendum in which Scotland bids for outright independence from the U.K.. Alex Salmond, first minister of Scotland and leader of the Scottish Nationalist Party, claims that an independent Scotland will retain its EU status and has included keeping the British pound as part of his campaign pledge.
However, these promises potentially contravene the EU’s Lisbon Treaty, which states that new members must apply to join the EU and, once economic measures have been met, should adopt the euro. Salmond also faces a steep struggle to convince the Scottish public of the benefits of independence before the planned 2014 referendum. In a recent Ipsos Mori poll, only 30 percent of respondents agreed that Scotland should become an independent country, while 58 percent said no. Salmond’s message may be more driven by his charismatic personality than public opinion. Prior to 2008, mumblings of independence for the likes of Catalonia, Scotland, and Flanders were largely dismissed. But the cocktail of faltering national economies, rising nationalist pride, and credible economic bases for independence has fueled this trend across Europe. The responses from officials in Brussels show that they are determined not to be distracted by this sideshow as they focus on fixing the EU’s financial underpinnings. As much as Catalonia, Scotland, and Flanders might make credible cases for independence, EU legalities might mean that their efforts remain a pipedream.
Sarah Halls is a Communications Assistant with the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Brussels.