Could Catalonia’s tumultuous referendum touch off other independence movements in Europe? Two specialists weigh in.
Three years after its initial illegal referendum in 2014, Catalonia held a new independence vote on Sunday, despite steadfast opposition from Madrid. The regional government said 90 percent of voters (albeit with only 40 percent turnout) cast a “yes” vote on Sunday, a figure that might well be the envy of other European independence movements.
Barbara Loyer, a professor at the French Institute of Geopolitics at Paris 8 University, says “the potential for destabilization [in the rest of Europe] is very great”. In her opinion, the images of violence that accompanied the vote are particularly dangerous. “That opens the debate on the question of democracy. The incidents are reduced to a battle of the people against the state and the police. It’s a godsend for regionalism in Europe,” Loyer says. And yet, she points out that, even though Spain is one of the most decentralized countries on the continent, it did not manage to “change the relationship with nationalism”.
Vincent Laborderie, who teaches at Belgium’s Université Catholique de Louvain, for his part believes the historical and cultural contexts elsewhere in Europe to be far too different for the developments in Catalonia to have an impact. “The police repression could perhaps incite Catalans who were undecided to side with the people, but a vote marred by violence is more likely to discourage [other separatists elsewhere in Europe]”, Laborderie argues.
The Basques, the Scots, the Flemish…FRANCE 24 takes a closer look at the independence movements that may – or not – draw inspiration from the Catalan vote.
The Basque country
After the Catalan referendum, observers naturally turn their gaze to the other separatist pocket in Spain, the Basque country. That autonomous region, with its particular status, has enjoyed enlarged powers since the end of the 1970s. While its decades-long struggle for independence was embodied by the separatist and terrorist ETA movement, that group laid down its weapons earlier this year.
To Loyer and Laborderie, that state of affairs makes the risk of contagion from the situation in Catalonia unlikely.
“They already have more autonomy than Catalonia, and in particular the fiscal autonomy Barcelona has long demanded,” explains Laborderie, who adds that at the moment the mindset in the Basque country is instead one of “healing the wounds of the civil war”.
After a defeat for the independence camp in the 2014 Scottish referendum, Scotland could set the table for a second vote. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon stumped for a new referendum after Europhile Scottish voters rejected Brexit only to see it prevail nationally in that 2016 vote.
“Scotland is perhaps the region most likely to take the plunge and organise a new referendum, but the prospect is still a way off; the regional government is still considering it,” says Laborderie. Indeed, after the British general election in June that saw her Scottish National Party lose ground, Sturgeon deferred the decision to hold a new referendum to the autumn of 2018 and the conclusion of Britain’s Brexit negotiations with Brussels. If the holding of a new referendum is finally approved, the vote itself would therefore not take place until the spring of 2019 at the earliest, after Britain’s effective exit from the European Union
In any case, Sturgeon did express her support for the Catalan referendum via Twitter and criticised the Spanish government’s heavy-handed response. The Scottish first minister tweeted her concern as early as Sunday morning, when Catalans were filling queues at polling stations and violent imagery of the police response was rife on social media.
“Increasingly concerned by images from Catalonia. Regardless of views on independence, we should condemn all the scenes being witnessed and call on Spain to change course before someone is seriously hurt. Let people vote peacefully,” Sturgeon wrote. Sunday evening, the first minister took to Twitter again to blast what she suggested was a tepid British Foreign Office response to the events in Spain. “Statement from the Foreign Office on Catalonia is shamefully weak. A true friend of Spain would tell them today’s actions wrong and damaging.”
Ravaged by civil war in the 1990s, the situation in countries that made up the former Yugoslavia remains tense. “We can imagine that the autonomous province of Vojvodina in Serbia wants to demand more. There is also Bosnia, where the Serb part could also do a referendum. The difference with Spain is that the police could not step in because they do not have the means,” notes Laborderie.
Flanders, Belgium’s Dutch-speaking region, also has a sizable nationalist movement. The region already has its own parliament, where nationalists hold 50 of the chamber’s 124 seats.
“The Flemish are ready for independence, but is it in their interest? They are already in a virtually confederate system in which the central state has almost no remaining prerogatives,” says Loyer.
Laborderie concurs, arguing that Flanders “has never been so far away from independence.” The specialist says, “After the 500-day political crisis in 2010 and 2011 that led to the sixth reform of the state, Flanders obtained more powers; its demands were met. Besides, the NVA [New Flemish Alliance, a nationalist party] has entered the federal government and can influence politics from the inside.” While two NVA lawmakers manifested their discontent by leaving the party, dissension remains, for the moment, essentially internal to the movement and stability predominates.
Nevertheless, the NVA criticised police violence in Catalonia on Sunday, tweeting that there is “no place in Europe for political leaders who resort to violence. Those who continue to reject the call for international mediation are denying democracy”.
Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel, for his part, was one of the only European leaders to take a stand on Sunday. “Violence can never be the answer! We condemn all forms of violence and reaffirm our call for political dialogue,” Michel tweeted in English (in a social-media missive retweeted, in fact, by Scotland’s Sturgeon).
Padania and Sardinia
In Italy, the populist Lega Nord, or Northern League, has campaigned to make Padania – a contrived area composed of a patchwork of territories in northern Italy – a region autonomous from Rome. A consultative referendum on the issue is due to be organized in the autumn in Lombardy and Veneto, two of the wealthiest regions in the country.
The Lega Nord is an anecdotal movement, according to Loyer, “a small group with strong egos at its head that quickly disappeared when they allied with [former Italian Prime Minister Silvio] Berlusconi. Today, they have converted into an anti-immigration party and are searching for an electorate.”
“Padania is a vast myth that has collapsed,” adds Laborderie. “They have no historical reality; the north of Italy was always separate. In Sardinia, on the other hand, the independence movement is more concrete, even if they are still a very long way from demanding a referendum. Moreover, they already have a lot of autonomy.”
With their autonomous status and their own government, the Faroe Islands, which have been part of the Danish empire since 1948, already handle their own affairs, with the exception of defence.
Separatist desires resurfaced on the islands when sizable oil and gas deposits were discovered more than 20 years ago. Independence proponents see in those resources a means of freeing the territory from its economic dependence on Copenhagen and diversifying an economy largely reliant on the fishing industry.
A referendum is due to take place in April 2018 over a proposed constitution that would, among other things, define Faroe Islanders’ right to self-determination.
Corsican separatism remains vibrant. During French legislative elections in May, three independence proponents won seats in the National Assembly – a first. The Isle of Beauty already holds a special status in France, enjoying enlarged powers.
“For the moment, things are calm in Corsica because the context is not a favourable one. But if Corsica organized a referendum, the situation could be similar to that in Catalonia, where one could see the police confronted with the people,” says Loyer.
The nationalist majority in the Corsican Assembly adopted a motion on September 22 underlining the “uncontestable legitimacy of the Catalan government” in the face of an “evolving and worrisome” situation. Assembly President Jean-Guy Talamoni even tweeted his support to the “free people” of Catalonia.