What next for independence movements in Europe?

Published: 18 November 2014
Author: Eve Hepburn

One can imagine that the European Commission breathed a collective sigh of relief when the results of the Scottish independence referendum were announced on 19 September 2014.

The independence referendum had created a headache - if not a chronic migraine - for officials in Brussels, in trying to figure out whether Scotland would have to leave the EU and then reapply for membership (under Treaty 49, which was the official preference of former President Barroso and the Better Together campaign) or if it would allow Scotland to remain in by amending the EU treaties (under Treaty 48, the preferred choice of Yes campaigners and some dissident Commission officials).

If the process was seen as too easy, there were fears amongst the anti-independence camp (and parallel hopes amongst pro-secessionists) that this would cause a domino-effect across the continent as other stateless nations with aspirations towards independence in Europe would jump onto the indyref bandwagon.

But was this sigh of relief premature? For one thing, Scotland hasn’t been the only territory with an independence referendum on the cards this year. All eyes turned to Catalonia last weekend, where a non-binding vote on independence was held on Sunday 9 November. The Catalan authorities had previously planned to hold an official referendum on Catalan’s future, but this was suspended by the Spanish Constitutional Court. Judges and politicians in Madrid have viewed the referendum as illegal and an egregious affront the notion of indissoluble Spanish sovereignty.

Madrid’s stern views scuppered a similar proposal in the Basque Country in 2008, whereby proposals to hold an independence referendum, which were passed by the Basque regional assembly, were ruled down by Madrid as unconstitutional.

These stern warnings did not stop the Catalan authorities this time, however. The unofficial poll was a success for Catalan independence-seeking parties: 80% of those who participated (about 2 million people) voted in favour of independence. While it is difficult to argue that the vote in favour of independence is binding with a turnout of 37%, it is an undeniably strong indication that Catalans want constitutional change.

The poll, however, has amplified the Commission’s migraine. Unlike the Scotland-UK case, whereby the UK Government agreed to holding the independence referendum in Scotland and promised to abide by the outcome (in the ground-breaking ‘Edinburgh Agreement’ of 2012), the ‘democratic will’ of the Catalan people has been slapped down by Spanish Prime Minister Rajoy, who has forbidden any future referendums and has attacked the recent poll as‘political propaganda’.

What should the EU do? At the moment, the official position is to keep its head down and say nothing about the internal affairs of one of its valued member-states. But will this strategy work when more independence referendums – official or unofficial – add more cracks in the sovereignty of the EU’s currency member-states?

For Scotland and Catalonia are not the only cases of independence aspirations in the EU. The next country to watch, without a doubt, is Italy, whereby a poll released last month by Demos showed that 31% of Italians wanted their region to become independent, a figure that was significantly higher in several autonomist regions.

The highest was Veneto, a wealthy northern region of Italy with a strong identity, where 53% of survey participants preferred secession. This reflects the success of the nationalist parties in Veneto – most notably the governing Liga Veneta-Lega Nord (LV-LN) – in agitating for independence. The regional assembly passed a bill in June this year to hold a referendum on independence, and President of the Region Luca Zaia of the LNV promised that he would see this through.

These events follow an unofficial referendum in Veneto earlier this year in March, supported by several nationalist parties, whereby 89% of participants voted to leave Italy. While the legitimacy of the poll is questionable (as many Latin Americans of Venetian descent voted), another survey by La Repubblica has confirmed the Demos poll, showing that about 55% of Venetians want independence. And if and when the plebiscite is held, given these high numbers in favour of secession, there may be a greater possibility of success than in Catalonia or Scotland. However, everything will ultimately down to the Italian Constitutional Court which, like its Spanish counterpart, views consultative referenda on the fragmentation of the Italian state as illegal.

An unofficial referendum was also held in the German-speaking province of South Tyrol in 2013, which lies on the northern periphery of Italy and which was previously annexed from Austria. Here, over 90% of participants expressed their support for self-determination, and the pro-independence Sud-Tiroler Freiheit went on to win its highest share of the vote in the subsequent regional elections. The issue of secession from Italy is unlikely to go away, not least because it is the ultimate goal of the South Tyrol People’s Party, which has ruled the province throughout the post-war period.

Next up is Sardinia, an island in the Mediterranean, which contains the oldest nationalist party in Italy and one of the oldest in Europe. The Partito Sardo d’Azione, whose electoral fortunes has risen and fallen over the past century, failed by one vote to pass an independence referendum bill in the Sardinian regional assembly in 2012. It would also appear that there is some public support for the Partito Sardo’s position, even if the party itself is lagging behind in the polls. In a collaborative project with the University of Cagliari that for the first time surveyed the attitudes of Sardinians on issues of identity and constitutional change, we found that 41% of Sards wanted independence, and a whopping 87% were in favour for greater devolved powers for the island.

These findings were confirmed in the Demos poll last month, which revealed that 45% of Sardinian participants were in favour of independence. The regional government is currently working on re-writing Sardinia’s special statute (constitutional law) to enhance the island’s fiscal, social and cultural powers. If these powers are not forthcoming, it is likely that the Psd’Az and other nationalist parties will succeed in their next motion to have an independence referendum, raising more questions for the Italian Constitutional Court on how to proceed.

And finally, few people now believe that the question of independence has been put to bed in Scotland. With a recent poll showing majority support for independence, the SNP’s surge in new members, and the self-implosion of the SNP’s main competitor – the Scottish Labour Party - it may only be a matter of time before Scots vote again.

The EU – and its member-states – should not rest on their laurels: these movements are not going to go away. Ironically, the EU appeared to have undercut independence demands in the 1990s by giving sustenance to the idea of a ‘Europe of the Regions’ whereby substate regions could sit alongside – or even replace – the states in the governance of Europe. However, when these hopes were dashed with the state-reifying bias of the Lisbon Treaty, nationalist movements across Europe radicalised their demands in favour of independence in a Europe of the States, as this now seemed to be the only way to get a seat on the top table of the Council of the EU.

The onus is now on the EU to figure out how internal secession within its borders might actually work – because there are now several wannabe states knocking on its doors. If the citizenry of these ‘stateless nations’ believe that their future is best secured with the trappings of statehood, the resulting configuration would be a ‘Europe’ fractured into a number of smaller territorial entities.

Ironically, this map of Europe may be very familiar to historians. Once upon a time, before the rise of the modern nation-state in the nineteenth century, Europe was a patchwork of city-states and small self-governing regions. ‘Small is beautiful’ was the mantra then; with the spread of independence referenda, are we seeing the natural return to this model?

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