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Pro-independence advocates watching Catalonia worry about lack of EU support.
— Pro-independence movements across the bloc are feeling the chill as Spain cracks down on Catalonia’s secession bid with Europe’s backing.
For independence advocates in Catalonia and elsewhere, the argument that new breakaway regions would be allowed to remain inside the EU has been a crucial part of making secession palatable to voters.
Now the legal troubles facing Catalonia’s independence movement — long a source source of inspiration to separatists from France to Germany, Italy and Finland — are pouring cold water on hope of European support, and raising questions about whether other capitals will act like Madrid.
If EU officials are afraid of setting a dangerous precedent when it comes to Catalonia, the same is true for Europe’s separatist movements, who fear Brussels’ endorsement of Spanish unity could block their own bids for independence.
“The Catalan movement has inspired a lot, but at the same time the reaction of the EU has had the opposite effect,” said Axel Jonsson, a member of Ålands Framtid, which advocates for the Swedish-speaking Åland Islands to separate from Finland.
“You can’t stand alone as Catalonia, unfortunately, has done in Europe,” Jonsson added, saying the biggest lesson his movement took from Catalonia’s predicament was that “we cannot trust the EU.”
Independence advocates across Europe hailed a German court decision last week to free former Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont on bail pending a Spanish extradition request, which some see as a potential turning point in favor of the Catalan separatists.
However, the results of the region’s effort to break free from Spain don’t look promising so far. A declaration of independence in the Catalan parliament went unrecognized internationally, Madrid imposed direct rule on the region, and Spanish courts are getting ready to put the separatists on trial.
“Those people who’ve always been against independence feel confirmed by the reaction of the Spanish government,” said Cristian Kollmann of Süd-Tiroler Freiheit, a party advocating the majority German-speaking Alto Adige’s independence from Italy. “They say, ‘This is not the right way … because the central state will never let you go.’”
As a supra-national structure protecting the rights of all its citizens, these pro-independence movements see the EU as playing a crucial role in their success or failure.
“We still don’t know the final version of the story … Our hope is that the Catalan Republic will, of course, be implemented … and Catalonia becomes the first example that an internal enlargement of the EU is possible,” said Kollmann.
Independence advocates maintain that the clash — and the attention it’s received — means the EU will have to change its attitude sooner or later. Some even forecast a backlash against Brussels if it doesn’t.
“The Europe of today has been extremely disappointing in the Catalan case,” said Jean-Guy Talamoni, a member of Corsica Libera, which is seeking the secession of Corsica from France. He hopes the EU will change its stance by the time his home island is ready for independence, saying he did not expect Paris to “necessarily react like Madrid” in 10 years’ time.
“If Europe doesn’t change its attitude and doesn’t create ways to deal with internal enlargements, it will lose a lot of support from its citizens,” said Peter Luykx, a member of parliament for the New Flemish Alliance (N-VA), a pro-autonomy movement that has become Belgium’s biggest political party.
Setting an example
The fact that separatists have pinned their hopes on Europe as a safety net once they achieve independence from their nation-state puts Brussels in a quandary.
The EU’s existence has “dramatically lowered the costs of secession,” said David Bach, deputy dean of the Yale School of Management in the U.S. “You can have a fairly small, culturally relatively homogenous country … and still benefit from near-barrier-free access to a market of 500 million customers, low public borrowing costs in the eurozone, and global clout in trade negotiations.”
But the EU is currently trying to disincentivize this dynamic.
“The message to other secessionist movements is that EU governments and EU institutions are absolutely committed to preventing splintering,” Bach said.
By staying out of the fight and insisting the issue is Spain’s to handle, the EU is hoping to set an example for others.
“If we allow Catalonia — though it’s not our business — to separate itself from Spain, others will do the same,” European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said in a speech in Luxembourg in October. “I wouldn’t like to have a European Union which consists of 98 states in 15 years’ time.”
And yet these statements cut little ice among independence advocates in Catalonia and elsewhere, who maintain their regions wills stay inside the EU once liberated from their current nation states — a process that some call “internal enlargement.” They believe the EU will have to accept it sooner or later once enough regions are clamoring for that right.
That’s why the Catalan example is so important. Advocates are hoping for a ripple effect that will force the EU’s hand and open the door to their own independence bids.
European separatists maintain regular contact among themselves and are unafraid to say they draw inspiration from one another, especially from the more robust Scottish and Catalan movements. The European Free Alliance gathers many of those political parties in a single European political group.
But the Catalan situation has also made clear they need to strike a delicate balance between supporting each other and keeping their distance to avoid being seen as a common threat to European countries.
The Catalan separatists, for example, have kept the focus on Spain — which they describe as an authoritarian country that oppresses the Catalan people — to make their case, rather than advocating for regions’ right to self-determination more generally.
Some of that uneasiness was obvious in Puigdemont’s remarks at conference in Switzerland last month. Asked whether he supported similar independence movements in other countries, the former Catalan leader insisted each movement was different and that a common approach would lead to accusations separatists groups were forming a “current against Europe.”
The opposite is true of the Spanish government, which is playing up fears of similar movements to rally EU countries against Catalan secessionists’ cause.
“We have some ghosts of the past that return, like exclusionary nationalism, a version of populism that in Spain, but not only in Spain, we know well,” Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said at a gathering of the European conservatives in Spain in March.
Yet many of Europe’s independence advocates appear undeterred by the threat of a common front against them. The Catalan example, they insist, remains an inspiration — and has advanced their causes.
“The idea of independence is now in the minds of the people,” said Florian Weber of the Bayern Partei, a political party that advocates for Bavaria to separate from the rest of Germany.
“Before this happened in Scotland and Catalonia people said, ‘Oh, that’s not possible’ … Now they say, ‘Maybe it’s possible.'”
“It’s put independence once again on the agenda,” said Luykx, of the N-VA. “Catalonia shouldn’t be afraid. They’re in a strong position. They have to keep up with their current strategy.”