ANTWERP, Belgium — As debt-burdened European governments struggle to overcome the disparities in their still-imperfect union, old demons of regional separatism have surged anew in recent months, raising another unwelcome challenge to the continent’s traditional nation-states.
Separatist movements have dramatically reinforced their positions here in Belgium’s prosperous Flanders region, where the independence-minded New Flemish Alliance captured Antwerp’s 16th-century City Hall on Oct. 14 and, under its populist leader Bart De Wever, is heading into national elections in 2014 with new wind in its sails.
“There is an outcry in Flanders for change,” declared Danny Pieters, vice president of the Belgian Senate and a senior Flemish alliance leader.
Independence-minded nationalists also have made recent gains in Spain’s Basque Country, returning to power in the regional government after a four-year absence, and in Catalonia, where separatists running the regional government have threatened to hold a referendum on whether to remain part of Spain. In Scotland, which has been part of the United Kingdom for 300 years, such a referendum has already been scheduled for autumn 2014 — on the anniversary of a battle in which Scotsmen defeated the British.
“Secessionist temptations are legion on our continent these days,” Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a Green representative in the European Parliament, warned in a recent column.
On the other side of the ledger, two long-term separatist strains have receded, at least for the moment: on the French island of Corsica, where Mafia-style crime has eclipsed the nationalist movement, and in industrialized northern Italy, where scandal has set back the Northern League, forcing it to temper its complaints about paying high taxes to compensate for lazy and larcenous Sicilians.
Viewed from afar, the nations of Europe seem to have such a timeless history, under kings, prime ministers and presidents, that no one would think of pulling out of the country in favor of regional separatism. But struggles for regional cultural and political independence — the Basque ETA set off bombs for decades — have long burned under the surface, a permanent part of the European landscape.
In the Balkans, the death of Marshal Tito led to bloody regional wars in the 1990s that resulted in the breakup of Yugoslavia into half a dozen new states. Czechoslovakia also spilt after the fall of the Soviet Union, but peacefully, into the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
Western Europe’s recently successful separatist leaders have shown no clear inclination for such violence, although some have suggested they could be tempted to violate constitutional law if their demands are not met. But even if the separatists remain peaceful, the resurgence of regional nationalists has created another debilitating struggle for leaders already trying hold together a European Union undermined by punishing debts and divergent economies.
Ironically, the regional separatists have benefited from the success of the European Union over the last half-century and the ideal of seeing, one day, a United States of Europe in which the role of national governments would diminish. Artur Mas, the Catalonian nationalist leader, and De Wever, his counterpart here in Antwerp, both have spoken lyrically of seeing their regions as independent nations within such a federated Europe.
In most instances, breakaway leaders have strengthened their positions recently because they found it easier to broaden their support in the context of Europe’s relentless financial crisis. By forcing central governments to enact painful tax increases and spending cuts, the crisis has made the perennial quests for local independence more attractive to ordinary people who feel they are over-taxed for social welfare programs that transfer wealth to other regions.
De Wever rose to notoriety in 2005 by leading a convoy of 12 trucks loaded with more than 200 million euros in fake 50-euro bills that were transported from Flanders in the north to Wallonia in the south, dramatizing his message that relatively well-off Flemish-speaking taxpayers were financing a costly welfare system for French-speaking Walloons. The Bank of Belgium estimated that in that year the transfers amounted to 5.8 billion euros.
Conversations in the elegant streets of Antwerp indicated that many people support De Wever and his Flemish alliance not because they want to break away from Belgium, but because they want change from the crisis-driven economic policies handed down from the Socialist Party-led national government in Brussels.
A key indicator of what they object to, observers here said, was the recent closure of a nearby Ford auto plant, which resulted in the loss of 400 jobs directly and another 600 at parts and supply companies. The national government proposed lowering the age of government pensions for laid-off workers, while De Wever insisted the best solution was to attract business investment to create other jobs for them. Otherwise, he added, Flanders would end up “Walloon-ized” by welfare payments.
Philippe Juliam, a secondary school ethics teacher enjoying a beer and a fat Havana cigar in one of Antwerp’s countless wood-paneled cafes, said De Wever’s cause is gaining adherents not only because of the crisis but also because it responds to a growing feeling that the country is already divided along linguistic and many other lines.
“We are two different nations, with different cultures, different economies and different languages,” he said, puffing on his Bolivar.
Scottish independence activists have long said similar things, although they speak the same language as the English. But it was only last year that the Scottish National Party gained a majority in the regional parliament and Oct. 15 when its leader, First Minister Alex Salmond, signed the referendum agreement with Prime Minister David Cameron in London.
As opposed to other European independence movements, the Scottish separatists have been hampered by the economic crisis that has slowed activity across the continent since 2008. Rather than blaming the London government, many Scots have expressed fear that things would only get worse if Scotland were to go it on its own, leading to polls that show the nationalists would lose if the referendum were held today.
The economic argument has boosted separatist hopes strongly in Catalonia, however, drawing in many people who previously would not have envisaged life outside Spain. Oriol Pujol, a leader of the ruling regional party, Convergence and Union, estimated in a recent interview that more than 8 percent of Catalonia’s $260 billion economy goes off to Madrid in taxes and never returns to help the region.
Mas, the regional president, recently set new elections for Nov. 25 and pledged that, if he gains a reinforced majority as expected, he will organize a referendum on a greater independence — greater but carefully undefined. He decided to act, officials in Barcelona said, after failing to win concessions from Madrid on new fiscal arrangements that would allow the region to keep more of its tax money.
The long-restive Basque Country, where polls show 40 percent of the population favors independence, has long been the scene of Europe’s best-known regional movement, largely because of terrorist strikes by the ETA that have killed more than 800 people over several decades. The ETA, Basque-language initials for Basque Country and Liberty, announced a permanent cease-fire late last year, halting attacks, but the Spanish government insisted it must turn over its arms and dissolve before arrests will stop.
Karla Adam in London contributed to this report.