There is a widespread belief among EU officials to keep the attitude that Catalonia is a mere Spanish inner issue that deserves no focus or attention in Europe: the idea that the slightest support or sympathy might create a similar effect in other European countries. Following this logic, Catalonia’s independence would be a precedent that all European minorities, linguistic communities or stateless nations would follow. Yet this idea is simply false. It has been proved (read Sorens, Pavkovic and others), and there is no reason to believe this time it is going to be any different.
|The Guardian published a report about pro-independence movements|
The scholars that have researched the phenomenon of secession agree that a success in a secessionist case has an effect in other areas inside the same country, but not outside of it. The independence of Slovenia and Croatia led to other secession processes and ultimately the disappearance of Yugoslavia, but no other country in the region experienced anything similar, neither Albania, Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Austria or Italy, even if most of them do have ethnic and linguistic minorities within their borders. The same can be said about the Soviet Union: the Baltic republics and Georgia were the only republics pushing strongly for their independence, but in the end the whole country collapsed and 15 new countries emerged (plus the unrecognized countries that became frozen conflicts: Chechnya, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Mountain Karabakh, Transdniester and so on). But there was nothing resembling it in the neighboring countries, from China and Mongolia to Finland or Poland, no secessionist movement took advantage of the new independent countries. The reason seems obvious: a successful secession, especially in an authoritarian country, usually means the weakening of that state, and therefore a window of opportunity for other secession movements within those borders. But this is not the case outside the country.
If we take this to the EU in 2017, we will realize that there are few strong independence movements in the 28 countries. In Western democratic countries, it is quite easy to create a secessionist movement, even for your own village - this is not the case in Turkey or India, for instance, when even having a goal for independence is forbidden and leads to repression - but very few of those pro-independence movements reach a wide support. And in those few areas where secessionism is more or less rooted, the original state has a very a different approach to the Spanish attitude.
Among the 16 newest countries joining the EU since 1995, none of them has an independence movement with a minimal support or representation at a state or regional level (Cyprus is more a case of a frozen conflict). There are some minorities with their own political parties but they do not advocate the independence for their community. Perhaps in their ideal world they would dream to join the country of their ethnic group. But, first of all, this would be a case of irredentism, not secession: no new country would be created but the borders of two countries would be changed, and that is something no one is proposing – all European countries recognize the limits of the neighboring countries and no one claims more territory. In fact, as the European Court of Justice stressed in the case of Kosovo, “the scope of the principle of territorial integrity is confined to the sphere of relations between States”, remembering that the UN General Assembly reiterates: “States shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any State”. Europe has seen plenty of independence cases in the last decades but no case of irredentism until the takeover of the Crimea by Russia against the territorial integrity of Ukraine.
If we look at the “older” 12 EU countries, half of them have no independence movement : Portugal, Greece, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Germany and Ireland. The other five are France, UK, Italy, Denmark and Belgium (and Spain). Denmark has always accepted that Greenland and Faroe - who decided not to be part of the EU, let’s remember it - will be independent the moment they so choose. The UK has also accepted to negotiate an independence referendum, even in tougher cases like Scotland, where a new border would have emerged in Britain. Gibraltar has repeatedly voted to be part of the UK. The Stormont Agreement acknowledges the right of the people of Northern Ireland to decide if they want to remain in the UK or join the Republic of Ireland. Italy could even be included in the first group of countries with no strong independence movement. It has powerful regional parties, in Aosta or South Tyrol, even a deep separated national conscious in Sardinia –which surprisingly never evolved into a strong political party- and then comes the Lega Nord, whose very name indicates they see themselves as a part of Italy, the northern part. Their former Padania vision is long gone and now they work in populist far-right and anti-immigration agenda.
What about France and Belgium? They represent two totally different countries: the biggest EU country is one of the most centralized, while Belgium, being among of the smallest, is practically a confederation. We have seen many Flemish flags in Barcelona in recent demonstrations, but as the academia has proven, in cases where there are two main ethnic groups in a country, and the secessionist community is the majority of the population, it is easier for them to rule the country, rather than separating from it. This is exactly the case with N-VA, that has become the largest party both in Flanders and Belgium. Which does not mean that Flanders cannot one day become an independent country, but when or if this happens, it will be totally unrelated to the events in Spain or any other country. Up to now, Belgium has proved a capacity to reinvent itself once and again, as someone who knows he is riding a bike and the moment he stops cycling, he will simply fall down.
France has been historically the mirror where Spain would like to see itself, with a single republican national identity, mere administrative divisions, no autonomous areas, and unwilling to open its grip to accept any sort of official recognition for any language other than French. This being true, we should not forget that next year a French territory is holding a referendum of self-determination: New Caledonia. While this and other cases like the French Polynesia fit better in a decolonization process, it reveals a will for a pragmatic approach to this kind of issues. The situation in the Hexagon ("mainland" France or the "European" part) is different to the overseas regions, true. There are regional or pro-autonomy (even pro-independence) movements and parties in Brittany, Occitania, Alsace, Northern Basque Country, Catalonia and, the strongest of them, Corsica. Yet the real support to separate from France is low, and even those pro-independence movements tend to be pragmatic and advocate linguistic rights and, ultimately, some sort of autonomy. In the case of the Basques, the push to achieve a Territorial Collectivity gathered a broad support even among those local politicians of the main French parties, they were able to force Paris to negotiate, and ultimately led to the actual Basque Municipal Community. This institution has very limited powers and is very far from the original demands, but it is nevertheless a huge success for a movement pushing for some sort of recognition since 1789. Corsica enjoys a far higher degree of autonomy, yet nothing compared to a German Land or an Autonomous Community in Spain (and French remains the sole official language in France, including Corsica). Besides, the island comprises roughly 1 % of the French Territory, and its population about 0,5 % of the citizens of the Republic. Nothing that could remotely be compared to Catalonia. The loss of Corsica would affect much less to France. And before this happens, if one day Corsicans started to demonstrate as Catalans did, gathering some 20-25 % of the population in the streets and forcing the local political parties to rise their demands, it is certain that Paris would be able to negotiate those grievances, find some sort of new settlement, bring it to a referendum -as it has historically happened before- and solve it for at least one or two generations.
This is something Spain did not even try to do. An approach to the moderate pro-independence activists, a "divide and rule" policy, a minimal offer might have defused the capacity of the whole movement some 4-5 years ago. Therefore, while there is no risk of contagion in EU countries, there is a real possibility that Catalonia's independence might lead to the collapse of Spain as a country. The sense of defeat is very well known in the country, it is labelled as the spirit of 98, remembering 1898, when Spain was defeated in the war against the US and it lost the last remnants of its once huge empire: Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Guam. Now this fear is again very much alive: if Catalonia succeeds in separating from Spain, it will only be because Catalans have managed to open a big hole in the Spanish wall, a hole that, once open, Basques would probably rush to use as well. And no one knows how Galicians or other Mediterranean Catalan-speaking areas like the Balearic Islands or Valencia, areas where PP traditionally has a strong support but at the same time many often complain for a fiscal deficit, would act in such a scenario of state-collapse. The hole that Catalonia needs to leave Spain can make collapse the whole Constitutional system established in 1978, including the monarchy. But it would hardly be mirrored in any other European country.