Under EU, independence feels viable to Europe’s secessionists

Members of a group advocating independence for Spain's Catalonia region rally in Barcelona. Under the European Union, secession seems a viable option for disaffected regions.
(David Ramos, Getty Images)

VENICE, Italy — During most of the last 1,200 years, this watery Italian city was a nation unto itself — powerful, prosperous and proud.

Now, many of its residents are convinced that their best shot at the future lies in turning back the clock.


Venice and the surrounding region, known as the Veneto, would be much better off as an independent state again, uncoupled from Italy, a growing number of people say. They’re tired of paying billions of dollars in taxes to Rome, only to see the money frittered away on other, less productive parts of the country.

So this year, thousands of Venetians signed a petition demanding a divorce from their fellow Italians. A declaration of independence was delivered — by gondola, of course — to regional officials, who are mulling over a possible referendum on breaking away.

“We say we don’t need Rome,” said Lodovico Pizzati, an economics professor who is leading the campaign. “We have our right of self-determination.”

His dream, of an independent Venice taking its place alongside other countries in the European Union, may be unlikely. But it’s by no means unique.

Secessionist movements, some serious, some quixotic, have sprouted across Europe. Scots will vote in 2014 whether to remain part of the United Kingdom or end Britain as we know it. Catalonians want out of Spain. The Flemish are debating withdrawal from Belgium.

Many of these movements are fueled by economic resentment, richer regions eager to shake off poor ones as Europe battles a lingering debt crisis and enacts draconian spending cuts. To critics, such discord makes a mockery of the EU and the harmony it’s supposed to embody.

But a number of analysts contend that, far from pointing up its failure, the various separatist movements actually attest to the EU’s success in bringing comity and stability to a continent torn apart by two world wars, an achievement for which the 27-nation body this month was presented the Nobel Peace Prize.

Under the EU’s reassuring wing, it doesn’t matter that an independent Scotland or Veneto would each comprise only about 5 million citizens; Denmark, a long-established club member, has about that many. The tiny nations of Malta and Luxembourg, which belong not only to the EU but also to the more exclusive group of 17 nations that use the euro, boast only a million people between them.

In many ways, the European Union has created the very conditions that now make independence for disaffected regions or minorities seem like a viable option.

Virtually none of the secessionists talk about their homelands going it alone, a brave new nation striking out on its own in the world. Rather, their rallying cries of freedom for Scotland, Catalonia or Flanders are invariably followed in the same breath by a description of their aspiring country as a card-carrying member of a strong, durable European Union.

They see the EU as a bulwark in an increasingly competitive, globalized world. As a member of a club that wields immeasurably more clout — financial, diplomatic, military — than they would have on their own, small nations can thrive without fear of getting left behind or trampled over, benefiting from the trade deals the EU wins on behalf of all members or from its common foreign policy.

“The EU changes the equation,” said Heather Grabbe, director of the Open Society Institute, a Brussels-based think tank. “If you’re looking at the cost benefit of independence, having the EU there as the guarantor of peace and stability, to some extent, and also providing regulations and rules that you might need as a small state” can tip the balance.

Because important EU decisions are made by consensus at high-level summits in Brussels, separatists are beguiled by visions of their leaders standing shoulder to shoulder with German Chancellor Angela Merkel or sitting next to French President Francois Hollande at the negotiating table. Such egalitarianism was written into the DNA of the European Union in reaction to the bloody wars of supremacy of the 20th century.

“The EU is dressed up as a community of countries that was specifically designed to avoid the dominance of any one country,” Grabbe said.

Just how important remaining part of the EU is for breakaway regions can be seen in the trouble they encounter if membership looks in doubt.

In Scotland, independence advocates have taken their biggest political and public relations hit over signs that staying in the EU won’t be as automatic or simple a process as First Minister Alex Salmond has consistently maintained.

There are no specific legal guidelines for what happens when an EU member state splits up or a portion of an EU country secedes to become an independent nation; this is virgin territory. But recent comments from high-ranking EU officials suggest that newborn nations, even those with an EU parent, would have to apply for membership like any other aspirant country, a potentially laborious and protracted process.

This month, opposition lawmakers hooted in derision when Salmond’s independence-minded government was able to cite little more than “common sense” in asserting that the EU would strive to make continued membership for Scotland easy and pain-free.

“It is simply not credible to argue that the other nations of the European Union would not want to retain access to the vast array of resources and opportunities that Scotland brings to the EU table,” Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said.

Countries trying to hold themselves together are likely to link arms in discouraging secessionist campaigns and lobbying EU officials not to simplify matters for breakaway regions. Spain, for instance, has an interest in seeing the bar set high for Scotland, as a warning to restless Catalonians and Basques.

“In practice, it will not be that easy to split off from the states to which we belonged before and just say to Brussels, ‘Let us in,’” said Lieven De Winter, an expert on regionalist politics at the Catholic University of Louvain, in Belgium. “The major barrier will be the resistance of the existing member states.”

EU nations dividing Hydra-like into yet more EU nations will also put heavy pressure on the organization’s ability to function smoothly. Already, reaching agreement among 27 countries, each with veto power, is headache enough. Can the club cope with 35 or 40 members?

For now, such questions don’t concern Pizzati, the Venice academic who is concentrating on building support and funding for a referendum on independence from Italy.

The Veneto, home to such well-known brands as Benetton and Electrolux, has flirted with separatism in the past. Independence advocates like to point out that modern Italy is a young creation, barely 150 years old, whereas Venice’s glorious history stretches back much further.

People here have long felt distinct from other Italians — they speak their own dialect — and their industriousness helps subsidize the poorer south, which is just how the politicians down in Rome like it, residents complain.

“We get taxed like the Scandinavians, but our services are like Albania,” Pizzati said. “We are a rich region that has no political power.”

The economic grievances of areas like the Veneto and Catalonia in Spain combine with the sense of cultural difference to create a potent political cocktail. If the economy improves, the nationalist campaigns could quiet down, but the emotions they have unleashed might not dissipate so quickly, said De Winter.

“Myths are powerful tools,” De Winter said. “Once the genie is out … it’s difficult to get it back in.”