Europe’s Separatist Movements

Catalonia’s independence movement may be the focus of this month’s news about separatist movements, but Europe has a number of regions that are considering going it alone. These movements tend to feed off of each other, supporting independence claims.

Even within Spain, Catalonia is not alone in seeking a split.  The Basque region has, for over half a century, been active in seeking some form of independence.  The main group leading the effort, the ETA, had in the past resorted to significant amounts of violence.

It is not coincidental that these movements appear to be gaining steam as elections for the European Parliament looms. Rather than unify the continent, the EU’s role in diminishing the status of its nation-state members has fostered fragmentation within its constituent member-states.

Among the most prominent of Europe’s separatist movements  are:

Scotland: In a 2014 vote, those in favor of remaining within the United Kingdom only won by a 5% margin, even though the region already enjoys considerable autonomy. There are significant defense-related implications for NATO if independence comes about, since those favoring secession have stated they would force Britain’s nuclear facilities out of the area. Leaders of the movement are now seeking a new referendum.

Lombardy and Veneto: There has long been tension between Italy’s wealthier, more industrialized north and the less affluent, more agricultural south. The underlying issue concerns a demand by these northern areas to keep more of the wealth they produce, which amounts to almost a third of the national economy. A nonbinding ballot is scheduled for the 22nd of this month. It should also be noted that in one ballot, 89% of voters from Venice opted for independence, also based largely on economic grounds. Italy’s regions of Sicily and Sardinia region have also had significant political discussions about breaking away from Rome.

Flanders and Wallonia : Belgium has long been a curious nation, split into a Flemish speaking north and a French speaking south.  The political inclinations of the two regions are also at odds, with a more conservative north and leftist south. A group called the New Flemish Alliance believes it will gain momentum by the end of this decade.

Corsica: In 2015, a French regionalist party won in local elections. The separatist The National Liberation Front of Corsica had engaged in violence, although it traded force for politics three years ago.  France also has another, more low key independence movement within its Brittany region, an area that speaks a distinct language, Breton.

Faroe Islands:  This portion of Denmark has elections scheduled for next year on the question of self-determination.  The area currently has considerable autonomy.

The list above is by no means complete. Other movements (with varying degrees of seriousness)  include those in Albania’s Northern Epirus, Azerbaijan’s Artsakh region, The Srpska and Croatian sections of Bosnia, The Czech Republic’s Moravian and Silesian sections, the Bornholm section of Denmark, Aland in Finland, Bavaria in Germany, upper Silesia in Poland, Russia’s North Caucasus and Tartar areas, the Jura Canton of Switzerland, and numerous other movements.

None of is should be particularly surprising to those with a passing knowledge of history.  Until the establishment of strong nation-states, Europe was a fragmented continent containing numerous small kingdoms, city-states, and autonomous regions.  Two of the most significant European nations, Italy and Germany, only became unified states in the 19th century.

The European Union, long advertised as a step forward, essentially if inadvertently has turned the clock back to a time when identification with a large nation-state was far less prevalent than that currently.  The EU’s predilection towards stringent centralized rules also echoes the past in that its bureaucracy tends to run roughshod over the concept of citizen rights over largely unresponsive government officials.

Frank Vernuccio serves as editor-in-chief of the New York Analysis of Policy and Government.

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