Europe's separatists gain ground in crisis

Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo (PS), Mons' PS head of list, celebrates the PS victory, in the evening at Mons' socialist party elections meeting, organised at Mons' Royal theatre, on the day of the Belgian municipal and provincial elections, in Mons, on October 14, 2012. (AFP PHOTO /DAVID STOCKMAN)

PARIS/BRUSSELS: From the Pyrennean pastures of Catalonia to the heathery highlands of Scotland, separatists are gaining ground as Europe's economic crisis deepens, but this does not necessarily mean there will be more national flags on the map.

Flemish nationalists scored sweeping gains in Belgian local elections on Sunday, Scotland agreed terms on Monday for a 2014 referendum on independence from Britain, and Catalan separatists expect a regional election next month to advance their cause.

Just as nation states are ceding more power over budgets and economic policy to the European Union, regional grievances and conflicts that have simmered for centuries have taken on new intensity in fights over a shrinking pie of public money.

Richer regions such as Catalan-speaking Catalonia and Dutch-speaking Flanders, which already have wide-ranging autonomy, resent paying for poorer areas such as Spanish-speaking Andalucia and French-speaking Wallonia.

In Germany, there is no separatist movement but prosperous Bavaria is challenging in court a fiscal balancing system that makes it hand over some revenue to poorer federal states.

Scotland, though poorer than England and subsidised by London, thinks it could manage better on its own by harnessing offshore oil and gas reserves.

There are as many differences as similarities between the separatist movements, and opinion polls suggest none has yet secured clear-cut majority support for breaking away.

Backing for Scottish independence hovers between 30 and 40 percent, a range that has changed little as negotiations have intensified. The latest survey by Spanish pollster Metroscopia in late September found 43 percent of Catalans wanted full statehood while 41 percent were opposed.

Catalonia, one of the wealthier regions of Spain per capita but with overstretched public finances, is in the paradoxical position of seeking a debt bailout from Madrid even as it presses demands for independence.

"Without a state, Catalonia will not survive," regional premier Arturo Mas of the centre-right sovereignist Convergence and Union party said in a weekend speech.

He argues that the region, home to hi-tech industries and productive farming, pays more to Madrid than it gets back and could use the cash to provide better social and health services.

After a demonstration by at least 500,000 separatists on Catalonia's national day last month, Mas pledged that if he wins the regional election he will hold a referendum on independence, which Madrid says would be illegal.

Many Catalan and Spanish officials say they expect no referendum, but instead a negotiation that would grant Catalonia more power to raise taxes and spend the revenue. The Basque Country, where nationalist groups look set to win a majority in regional polls this month, already has such an arrangement.

Elsewhere, charismatic politicians such as Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond and Flemish N-VA leader Bart De Wever have transformed what were once fringe nationalist groups into respectable mainstream forces.

They have played on the growing unpopularity of traditional parties of the centre-right and centre-left that have shared responsibility for implementing harsh austerity measures in the economic crisis since 2008.

Salmond has used Britain's decade-old devolution system to spare Scotland some of the most unpopular austerity measures imposed by Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, such as raising university tuition fees and some healthcare charges.

De Wever, by contrast, has advocated cutting spending instead of the unpopular tax increases imposed by the federal Belgian coalition led by Socialist Prime Minister Elio di Rupo.

The Flemish firebrand was cautious in an interview with Reuters a day after topping the poll in the port city of Antwerp, a Socialist bastion since the 1930s. He stressed conciliation and gradualism rather than a dash for sovereignty.

Asked if he felt he had a majority for independence, De Wever said: "That's not on the agenda now."

He urged Di Rupo to start negotiations before the 2014 general election to revise the federal constitution to establish a looser confederation. Flanders is home to 6.3 million of Belgium's 11 million people.

"Let's prepare this together, it is in our common interest to make this country work. Confederalism is the key and everybody understands that," De Wever told Reuters.

Asked about parallels with the Catalans or Scots, he said: "People make that comparison a lot but I especially see the differences. We are not a minority in our country, we are also not just one piece in a game with many players. We are quite a unique country."

Despite such distinctions, Europe's separatists are increasingly working together, sharing tactics and drawing inspiration from each other. They are also keeping a watchful eye on Quebec, where the separatist Parti Quebecois won a provincial election last month, but without the majority support needed to press again for independence.

The rise of European separatist movements is also part of a generation change, with political parties rooted in the class struggles of the 19th century losing ground to newer forces that have emerged in the lifetime of today's voters.

These include ecologist Greens, libertarian Pirates, and far-right Eurosceptical and anti-immigration groups as well as nationalists who have gained experience in devolved regional assemblies and local government.

Far from vaccinating nation states against break-up, the decentralisation of many European countries since the 1970s and 1980s has anchored separatists in the landscape.

While the main Catalan, Scottish and Flemish nationalist parties are all pro-European, there is a parallel between the separatist trend in some EU countries and the large protest vote for Eurosceptical, anti-immigration populists in others.

Italy's Northern League, in decline after a spate of scandals, combines demands for far-reaching autonomy for a region it calls "Padania" with fierce hostility to immigrants.

De Wever's N-VA, founded in 2001, has given Flemish voters a respectable alternative to the far-right Vlaams Belang (Flemish Cause) party which wants to ban mosque-building and send home Muslim immigrants.

Belgian political scientist Cas Mudde drew a link between the identity politics of separatists and far-right populists.

"Nativism feeds upon the feeling of endangered or threatened ethnic or national identity, linked most notably to the process of European integration, mass immigration, and the mechanics of 'multiculturalism'," he wrote in a 2007 study of Populist Radical Right Parties.

The increased role of the European Union, combined with devolution of power in many countries, has reduced the powers of nation states in Europe and hence eased the trauma of secession.

But in trying to dissuade voters from choosing independence, some governments are playing a European scare card.

Conservative Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy is warning that any region opting for independence will find itself shut out of the EU, since the admission of new member states requires unanimous agreement.

"If you are outside Spain and outside the European Union you are nowhere, you are condemned to nothingness," Rajoy said in a speech on Sunday.





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