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Sunday, September 7, 2014

Independence Movements in Europe

Link: Is South Tyrol Austrian or Italian?

I was a bit surprised when I recently stumbled upon a news program highlighting the various independence movements active in Europe today.  This is just the kind of interesting topic that gets my blogging blood flowing.  As a form of disclaimer, let me say up front that if I so chose, I could write about active independence movements in almost every country in Europe.  But with my post dangerously long as it is, I wisely decided to comment on only the Independence Movements that have gained the highest media profile.

I chose this particular link because it details the European identity crisis with which I am most familiar. In 1918, just after the end of the first World War, the winning Allies detached South Tyrol from the former Austro-Hungarian Empire and sewed it on to the Italian province of Alto Adige.  This decision continues to ruffle feathers 96 years later.  South Tyrol is one of a number of independence movements that are presently being debated in Europe.  The people of Scotland will actually have the opportunity to vote in a few weeks on the issue of independence from the United Kingdom.  Where else, you ask?  The folks in Barcelona, Spain want their province of Catalonia (Cataluña) to become a separate Republic; Catalans already speak their own language, which gives them a bit of a head-start.  In Belgium, the Flemish in the north and west would like separation from the Walloons in the south.  The status quo in Belgium is quite unique: On the left side of Belgium (as you are looking down at the map in front of you), all the road signs are in Flemish.  On the right side of Belgium, all the road signs are in French.  Brussels, the capital and one of the most important cities in the world, accommodates both Flemish and French.  Since the Flemish constitute roughly 50 percent of the population and the French speakers are closer to 35 percent (I have no idea what the other 15 percent are speaking; maybe Zulu), the Flemish are understandably a bit miffed at the arrangement.

I assume most Americans, like myself, were unaware that an independence movement existed in the northern Italian province of Alto Adige.  My close friend Marco Scherer, a member of the Austrian Army and a lifelong resident of the north Tyrol village of Schlitters, explained the issue to me in simple terms.  Italy was rewarded for ignoring its mutual-defense pact with Germany and Austria-Hungary in World War One.  Because Italy joined the Allies, the Italians were given a big slice of Tyrol.  It made no difference that the land annexed by Italy was at the time over 90 percent Austrian in ethnicity and German in language.  In most instances, the population would have assimilated to a large degree after 96 years.  But that isn't the case in south Tyrol.  Most folks still speak German and consider themselves Austrian.  Certainly there are many ethnic Italians as well, and the two groups do seem to get along.  But the issue has at times led to bloodshed.  To this day it is a very difficult subject with many Austrians (and all Tyrolians).  They consider the Italian annexation of south Tyrol to be Fascism at it worst and Imperialism at its best.  Its a fair, simple question to ask: in 2014, why is Italy governing a territory that is ethnically, linguistically, traditionally, and historically tied to Austria? 

France has had an independence movement in the province of Brittany for some time.  The central government in Paris has worked with representatives of the movement, and a good deal of governance and authority has been transferred to local officials and departments.  I understand that recently the French government has discovered a budding Catalonian succession effort on the French side of the border (Catalonia is in northeastern Spain, separated from France by the Pyrenees Mountains).  Because France has a history of being sympathetic to the Basque separatists of north central Spain, I'm sure the Spanish are enjoying the irony.  Speaking of the Basque Independence Movement, the Basque people, with their own language and customs, have been seeking independence from Spain since the mid-19th century (or earlier).  Following the second World War, the movement became more aggressive in its activities, encouraging the Basque people to commit various acts of civil disobedience.  The terrorist group "ETA" (Homeland), has committed many acts of violence in support of Basque Independence, including the murder of judges, politicians, soldiers, police, and former ETA members.  Since the turn of the last century, there has been positive movement towards a peaceful resolution, with the Basque people renouncing violence to a large degree.  The Spanish government in Madrid has given recognition to the Basque language and culture, and taken steps to provide local authorities with more control.  I do not think I will live to see the day that the Basque region becomes a separate nation from Spain.  I'm not going to tackle the subjects of Corsica (France), or Cyprus (Greece and Turkey); these two beautiful Mediterranean islands have violent histories which have been covered many times in all forms of media, and do not really fit into the category addressed in this post.

I was going to end this less-than cohesive post with a discussion on Bosnia-Herzegovina.  But similar to Cyprus and Corsica (and Kosovo), it deserves a post all to itself.  What were they thinking?  Lets have Croatians living next to Bosnians and Slovenians next to Serbs, when all they want to do is kill each other?  Well, hope springs eternal, and I have a soft spot in my heart for Bosnia (and Herzegovina).  A few facts that no one familiar with the Balkans will dispute: the Bosnians are a determined, hard-working people, and over the years they have suffered numerous episodes of tremendous suffering.  I think I will close on that note, as tomorrow I will be writing on the current state of affairs in the Balkans (pending other more important developments).  Cheers.

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