Is Europe cracking up?

Ian Traynor

While the EU falls out over economic policy, a wave of separatism is causing another unity dilemma for Brussels.

The EU is a union of nation states, not of citizens. So when decisions are taken in Brussels, the most important centre of power is not the European Commission, the executive which initiates legislation and polices EU law, or the European Parliament, the sole directly elected EU institution which nonetheless remains weak, albeit growing in power. It is the European Council where ministers from the 27 national governments meet to finalise, amend or reject laws and policies. At the apex are the regular summits where national presidents, prime ministers or chancellors take the big decisions.

This power structure has big implications for the growing wave of secessionism and separatism washing over the EU because it is the council, in other words national governments, that will decide whether a new country called Catalonia, Flanders, Padania, Bavaria, or Scotland will be admitted to the union.

There are endless legal issues and wrangles. But ultimately the question of a successful secession taking its seat at Europe’s top table will have to be settled politically. We have never been here before. There have been secessions within the EU. Algeria split from France in 1963, Greenland abandoned Denmark’s EU status. Neither case is pertinent to the ambitions of Catalan, Flemish, or Scottish nationalists many of whom want to quit Spain, Belgium or Great Britain, but certainly do not want to be left out in the cold beyond the EU. Indeed, the fear of exclusion is likely to dampen hopes of independence. As secessionist politics becomes more central, unionists everywhere are certain to stoke anxiety about EU exclusion to scare voters off.

The most immediate looming separatist case is Scotland, because we know there will be a referendum on the issue next year. The Scottish case is different in several key respects. The British government has acceded to a referendum, unlike anywhere else, and will not contest the democratic verdict, even if it breaks up the United Kingdom. The same cannot be said about Spain/Catalonia or Belgium/Flanders, the two other most pressing cases. The prospects of a breakaway Bavaria in Germany or northern Italy, Padania are much more remote.

The Scottish case, unlike everywhere else, is not driven by greed. The national and European bargains that have sustained the EU for more than six decades – redistribution of wealth from richer to poorer areas – are increasingly contested. This is happening within and between countries, exacerbated greatly by the single currency and sovereign debt crises of the last three Germany-led creditors bridling at lending their taxpayers’ contributions to the insolvent states of the EU periphery.

Ditto the recent battles over a new seven year EU budget, where the same net contributors sought to limit and reduce their transfers to the net beneficiaries. In Spain, Italy, Germany, and Belgium it is the wealthier and more successful regions that are bristling at having to subsidise their poorer fellow-citizens, fuelling rich region separatism.

Scotland, much poorer than southern England, is the exception to this dynamic. And unlike Catalonia or Flanders, it does not have the euro. The SNP in Edinburgh has been fond of claiming that an independent Scotland will automatically inherit Britain’s EU membership and more, that it will also smoothly retain the various exemptions, opt-outs, and special regimes negotiated by the UK over the decades – no euro, no Schengen passport-free travel, budget rebate, sundry exemptions in the areas of justice and home affairs.

This assertion of entitlement is viewed in Brussels as precisely that – an assertion that does not stand up to scrutiny. There is little doubt that an independent Scotland would need to apply to join the EU. The negotiation itself should not be too tricky. After all, one is negotiating the 35 chapters of the acquis communautaire, the body of EU law, which by definition is already applied in Scotland, or Catalonia and Flanders for that matter.

Nonetheless, any new country joining the EU has, for example, to agree to join the euro eventually and the SNP is committed to keeping the pound sterling. Since most of Britain’s fisheries are Scottish and since fisheries policy is decided in Brussels, this area may also be tricky.

The conundrum gets much more complex if, as promised by David Cameron, a UK referendum in 2017 sees Britain leaving the union.

There will still be a United Kingdom without Scotland. There would still be a Spain without Catalonia. There would be no Belgium, however, without Flanders, which comprises the wealthier and more productive 60 percent of the country, including Brussels, a francophone city in a Dutch-speaking “country”.

There will be no quickie divorce in Belgium between the Dutch-speaking Flemish and the francophone Walloons of the southern half. Rather a slow-motion separation with the two partners barely on speaking terms and with less and less in common.

The man making the political weather in Belgium is the new mayor of Antwerp, Bart De Wever, a centre-right separatist and republican who leads the New Flemish Alliance. Regional and national elections next year will see De Wever campaign for a Belgian “confederation”, putting as much clear blue water between the two sides as possible.

In Catalonia, early elections late last year were seen as a vote on a mandate to stage an independence referendum, firmly opposed as unconstitutional by the national government in Madrid.

The pro-secession prime minister in Barcelona, Artur Mas, did not do as well as he expected, but has cobbled together a coalition with other independence-minded parties. The tussle over whether to stage a referendum has yet to be settled.

The EU has never had to grapple with the breakaway part of a member state clamouring to be let back in. Brussels and national capitals are worried about the precedent being set and won’t welcome the newcomers. But if the resistance turns into outright refusal, the states of Europe will also stand accused of ignoring the democratically and peacefully expressed views of European citizens.

About the author:

Ian Traynor is Europe editor of the UK's Guardian


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