Nations only break up over clear and irreconcilable differences between different groups found within a country. In the context of the the recent wave of European separatism Belgium seems to be the only real contender for separation.
Since the re-election of President Barack Obama, the White House has received numerous petitions totaling over 100,000 signatures from various states (mostly Texas) asking for permission to secede from the Union for the perceived violate of the citizen’s rights as Americans. Although this may just be a case of some sore losers, the idea of separation from a state has moved back into the forefront recently, especially in Europe.
In September, approximately one million Catalonians marched through the streets of Barcelona demanding greater autonomy for their nearly bankrupt region. Belgium appears to be heading to a national divorce between the French and Flemish portions of the culturally and economically divided country. Meanwhile, the Scots have agreed with the Brits to a Fall 2014 referendum on independence, so the clock is ticking on the United Kingdom. At the same time the Germanic influenced northern Italian region of South Tyrol appears to want to flee the “taxing oppression” of Rome by establishing their own free state in the Alps. It seems that the adage “if you don’t like [X country] you can get out” still holds true today. The question is what is driving this separation anxiety and what are the prospects for these new countries if they do break away? History shows us that there are few examples of the peaceful separation of a nation into separate and distinct units, with the vast majority of national divorces coming as a result of a civil war or the collapse of an authoritarian regime. Looking around the world, the peaceful and amicable division of Czechoslovakia into the Czech Republic and Slovakia is one of the few successful examples that can be cited.
When pondering a national divorce, much like a troubled marriage, you have to look to the causes of the problems and whether or not the parties involved actually do want to see the division go through without immediate (or long term) regrets. Nations only break up over clear and irreconcilable differences between groups found within the current geographic boundaries, which is why these divorces are so often bloody. Many of the above examples do not show these reparable issues with much of the current separatist sentiments originating from the 2008 financial crisis and revolving around the question of who is to blame and why. Although the causes of the financial crisis are well known and the ripple effects of the contagion that followed have been charted; the treatment for the disease in many cases appears to be just as bad as the illness itself. This of course has been austerity that governments of Europe have been trying to implement, which has sparked protests across Europe as the average person feels they are paying the price for the perceived greed of bankers and the ignorance of governments. This austerity has resulted not only with anger towards national governments but dissatisfaction within parts of various nations’ populations towards other groups who are seen as taking more than their fair share.
It is from this dissatisfaction that the separatist sentiment grows, people feel betrayed and disconnected from their national government and for security they look towards local and regional structures as well as historical cultural or linguistic ties for a measure of safety. The separatist tendencies that develop then act as a form of threat to the national government accountable in an effort to leverage greater influence for their local, regional or cultural concerns. Unfortunately, for these local concerns, due to the interconnected nature of the world today, their separatist decision making and threats have impacts far beyond the scope of conflict that many separatist supporters perceive.
Many believe that forming a new country is relatively easy. You would vote yes in a referendum, negotiate a separation package and declare independence but it is not that simple. Multilateral agreements that have been signed by the current states may not pass onto the breakaway region as the new state would have not been a signatory to the original agreement. In the case of these potential European breakaways, this could mean no EU membership, the loss of the Euro and exclusion from European organizations. There are the questions of transferring their share of a national debt to the new nation. How do you divide up the debt? What formula can be used? More or less every policy area from immigration to environment and economic to military would have to be analyzed and codified by this new nation.
This brings us back to the turmoil within Europe, and looking at the situations objectively the odds are not in the favour of the want to be countries. Frankly, the protests in Spain are little more than a call for greater tax and spending rights (similar to those of the famously separatist Basque region) as Catalonia much like the rest of Spain is nearly bankrupt and could not financially survive on its own. For South Tyrol, although their Governor calls his citizens the “First Class Passengers” of the ship that Italy is and plans a constitutional challenge to the new tax measures, a new state of just over 500,000 people would likely struggle to maintain economy competitiveness within Alpine Europe. As for the Scots, although it is approximately 2 years from the referendum date, latest polls of referendum voting intentions from this past October show a 28% Yes vs 53% No, meaning that First Minister Alex Salmond has a lot of hearts and minds to win over in order to overturn the status quo in the coming two years. This leaves Belgium which seems to be the only real contender for separation. After almost two years without a functioning national government only ended when a six-party coalition was formed, recent local elections saw separatist leader Bart De Wever elected Mayor of Antwerp, a position that will be used as a springboard to set up a showdown in the 2014 national elections where the fate of Belgium will likely be decided.
Photo Credit: imcountingufoz