BERLIN — When Catalonia's president, Carles Puigdemont, affirmed the region's right to be an independent country on Tuesday, it was one of the most closely watched moments in the history of European secessionist movements. In the end, however, Puigdemont stopped short of declaring an independent polity.
His hesitation suggests that Catalonia may increasingly fit into a pattern where independence movements within the European Union have mostly rallied supporters to try to negotiate better deals and more autonomy rather than seceding. Such efforts have not resulted in full independence and are unlikely to do so in the near future.
While the motivations to split off from their home countries can be varied, they often boil down to a desire to have more control over their finances and revenue sources. Secessionist regions may want to expand the leeway of local police forces or counterterrorism units. It is also seen as a way of protecting unique cultural identities or regional languages and dialects from being swamped.
In Germany, the region of Bavaria has long entertained the thought of separating from the rest of the country, although such proposals have rarely been taken too seriously. Bavaria’s leverage as the country's richest region — similar to the economic weight of Catalonia in Spain — has given it an advantage on the political stage, which it is unwilling to easily give up. In an indication of its influence, German Chancellor Angela Merkel's power rests on a union between her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian counterpart CSU, which is a regional party with a distinct leadership. The CSU's political power became apparent most recently on Monday when it forced Merkel to agree to an upper limit on the number of refugees allowed to enter the country every year.
The close political relationship between Bavaria and Germany’s capital Berlin bears similarities with Scotland's influence within Britain. But it nevertheless attempted to split away in 2014. Unlike Catalonia, however, it did so with the agreement of the British government and without the heavy handed interference of security forces.
The 2014 Scottish independence referendum proceeded peacefully with the backing of Britain's parliament. At the time, Scotland voted against self-determination, but the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP), led by Nicola Sturgeon, has since reemphasized its commitment to launch a second referendum after Britain’s vote to leave the European Union. Although there remains vocal support for her plans in Scotland, Sturgeon’s party still lost about a third of its parliamentary seats in the general election this summer — likely putting an end to the Scottish desire for independence, at least for now.
Scotland’s 2014 “No” vote and the violence in the lead-up to this month’s independence referendum in Catalonia appear to have weakened the independence drive elsewhere in Europe, too.
In Belgium’s Flemish-speaking Flanders region, reactions to the Catalan announcement on Tuesday were mostly muted. Belgium is divided between the French-speaking Walloons and the Flemish. In addition to not sharing a language, the two communities are split along historic and socio-economic lines. Yet, as is the case in Germany’s Bavaria, the Flemish pro-independence party is currently part of the national government and has seen little benefit in trying to capitalize on the chaotic Catalan secession efforts as a role model for their region.
The desire for more autonomy has also mostly replaced the wish for full-fledged independence on the Faroe Islands, located about 800 miles from Denmark’s capital Copenhagen, from where they are partially governed. The regional government for the islands, which have a land area size of about 550 square miles, recently announced plans to expand their self-government but stopped short of announcing its desire to break away completely.
In South Tyrol, which belonged to neighboring Austria prior to the First World War and still feels strongly connected to German-speaking culture despite now being part of Italy, local parties have so far also failed to transform the widespread wish for independence into a powerful political movement.
Further to the south, the Italian regions of Lombardy and Veneto are scheduled to vote on greater autonomy later this month. However, regional political leaders there have heeded calls to respect a decision by the country’s Constitutional Court to not hold a vote on a full secession from Italy. The likelihood of a vote in favor of secession there would have been high. In March 2014, 89 percent of Venetians had voted for independence in an informal online petition.
Venetians’ independence drive has since served as a warning to authorities in Italy and elsewhere in Europe how easily secessionist resistance against a central government can turn violent. In 2014, more than two dozen people were arrested for attempting to split the region from Italy after transforming a bulldozer into a makeshift tank.
Violence was also long a reality in the autonomous Basque region, which is mainly located in Spain and extends into France. The terror group ETA violently fought the central government in Madrid for half a century until 2011. Today, however, the Basque Country enjoys vast tax autonomy, making it an expensive, but mostly loyal, part of Spain.
Rather than political repression, financial benefits and national political representation currently appear to be the key factors holding back secessionist movements across Europe.