Politics & Policy

Europe’s Secessionist Movements

Regions from Venice to Edinburgh want to break free of national governments but remain within the EU.

Warsaw, Poland — The debt crisis and years of barely perceptible economic growth are fueling independence movements in some regions of Europe.

On September 18, Scotland will vote on becoming independent from the United Kingdom. If a majority approves, the U.K. would lose a full 10 percent of its population and a third of its landmass. Polls show that backers of independence are trailing but gaining; they now have more than 40 percent of the vote.

Last month, Venice and its surrounding areas held a non-binding online referendum on independence from Italy. Of the Veneto region’s 5 million people, more than 2 million cast ballots, and an astonishing 89 percent supported secession. Even if some of the votes cast were duplicates (something security precautions were erected to prevent), the result clearly shows an alienated and angry electorate. The regional government might soon announce a more formal referendum to be held at polling places.

Catalonia, the region that includes Barcelona and generates one-fifth of Spain’s economic activity, is planning to hold a regional referendum on November 9 for independence. The national government in Madrid has refused to grant permission for the referendum and has persuaded the European Union to declare that a new state of Catalonia couldn’t become an EU member.

Here in Poland, the Silesian Autonomy Movement is gaining strength in its efforts to forge a separate political identity for the old industrial and mining region east of Krakow. In the last local elections in 2010, the group won 9 percent of the vote, doubling its previous showing.

These new secessionist movements in Europe aren’t anti-European or xenophobic (as many such efforts have been in the past). At the same time that nine out of ten Veneto voters supported independence, majorities also backed staying in the European Union and NATO, and keeping the euro as currency (although the last question carried with only 51 percent of the vote).

The Scottish National Party, which already runs an elected majority government with a great deal of autonomy, has said that an independent Scotland should automatically become an EU member since it would be seceding from an existing EU state. But the European Commission president, speaking to the BBC, said it “would be extremely difficult, if not impossible” for an independent Scotland to join the European Union because all 28 EU member states would have to agree. Britain has also warned that an independent Scotland would be unable to keep the pound sterling as its currency, though this stand might be part of a “bully and bluster” campaign to defeat the independence movement by sowing uncertainty.

Catalonia’s regional economy minister, Andreu Mas-Colell, has described backers of independence as coming from all sides of the political spectrum and also as “strongly pro-European.” “We are a government of moderates — centrist and business-friendly,” he wrote in the Wall Street Journal this month. He explained the desire for independence as “a reaction to the recent dramatic reversals in the extent of self-government that Catalonia once enjoyed” in areas ranging from health care to education to public administration.

In Venice, the resentment against the national government in Rome is intense and long-standing. Italy’s regions have few legislative powers of their own, and a 2006 attempt to give them more autonomy failed. Italy’s northern regions make huge transgers of wealth to what they see as the corrupt and dysfunctional regions of southern Italy. Analysts at the Italian Central Bank believe that Veneto and other northern regions get back only five dollars in transfers from the Rome government for every seven dollars they send to it. “You could eliminate all income taxes in all the northern regions if they didn’t have to send all that money to the South,” Alberto Mingardi, president of the Milan-based Bruno Leoni Institute, told me.

Luca Zaia, the president of the Veneto region, acknowledges that the Rome government isn’t about to grant the region a formal vote on independence. But he believes that making appeals on the basis of self-determination to the European Court of Justice and the United Nations can ratchet up pressure on the national government. Venice was an independent republic for centuries until Napoleon conquered it in 1797. Its trading merchants, symbolized by the explorer Marco Polo (1254–1324), traveled the globe and brought back amazing riches, sustaining a culture that gave the world composers such as Antonio Vivaldi, writers like Giacomo Casanova, and painters such as Titian.

Insisting that old, fixed boundaries of nation-states remain in place forever strikes many modern European voters as against the spirit of the EU. “If the EU is really a common framework of rules for all its citizens, it should be a proper setting for old national boundaries, which were often the result of conquest, to be discussed and redefined,” the Bruno Leoni Institute’s Antonio Martino has argued.

It’s safe to say that national governments won’t agree that the EU membership can grow through the “internal enlargement” of independent countries. But the restless electorates in some regions may force the national governments to grant more flexibility and freedom to grow. Catalan business owners chafe under Spain’s total effective corporate tax rate of 58.6 percent of profits, a clear barrier to economic growth. Andrea Soranzo, a clothing-store owner in Venice, told USA Today that he hopes the local revolt will result “in a little more autonomy and a little more pride in our city.” In Scotland, the push for independence spurred British prime minister David Cameron last Friday to say that it is “right” that the Scottish Parliament should win “more powers,” specifically to set Scotland’s tax policy — if Scots reject independence.

Drives for secession in the United States have had an obvious bad odor ever since the Civil War, but in Europe they are looking more and more like the flavor of the times.

— John Fund is national-affairs columnist at National Review Online.

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