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Friday, September 26, 2014

Post-Scotland: Crisis for Independence Movements in Europe?

List: Scotland Independence Referendum Complete Results

I was one of the many who anxiously followed the Scottish Independence Referendum results as they were announced. I'm not Scottish, but I love Scotland and I'm a bit sad that the voters rejected outright independence.   I'm also surprised.  I can't explain why, but I had this feeling that the voters would surprise the pundits.  Actually, they did.  The vote wasn't really close.  So I'm stuck humming "Loch Lomond" with a permanent vision of Queen Elizabeth and those ugly little dogs in my head.  Back on the continent, different folks with a variety of agendas set about interpreting the results.  Personally, I don't believe the referendum on Scotland is a precursor to anything (accept possibly another go by the Quebecois to separate from Canada).  Those persons keeping an eye on the various European independence movements now turn their focus on Catalonia, Spain. 

In 2012 the state government of Catalonia signed an agreement stating that a referendum on independence from Spain would be held in 2014 unless "socio-economic and political context make a postponement necessary".  Madrid is doing everything possible to legally combat the independence movement, which shouldn't be a surprise.  I will not get into the nuts and bolts of the Spanish financial crisis, except to say that I believe high domestic growth and international financing confidence indicate that the economy is on the mend.  The recent modest improvements in the economy have not discouraged the movement for Catalonian Independence.  Many Catalonians believe that Catalonia provides more to the Spanish government than it gets in return, especially when Barcelona is factored into the equation.  If Catalonia manages to hold the referendum in 2014 (which becomes less likely everyday), there is little doubt that the people will vote to secede by a statistical majority.  Even if the referendum is postponed for a year, I can't envision a scenario in which the Catalonian people vote against independence.  I'm going out on a limb here, but I believe the only way that Madrid can avoid a separation with Catalonia, is by proposing increased autonomy, and hoping that the Catalonians won't act unilaterally.  Frankly, I don't see this ending well.  With the Basque question presently on the back-burner ("hey, we were here first!"), the Spanish people are beginning to resent the Catalonian independence movement.  Most Spaniards have felt the pinch of austerity in recent years, and the Spanish media never misses an opportunity to portray Barcelona as the Bacchanalian capital of Europe, with plenty of drunk students and money from tourists to go around. My biggest concern, is that Madrid will be obliged to provide Catalonia with virtual independence, and the Basques will be right behind.

In all honestly, the so-called independence movements in mainland France (Brittany and Normandy being the only two that have received any media attention) are used as platforms to attract tourists.  Both Brittany and Normandy have fascinating and unique customs and dialects, but so does every region of France (trust me on this one; my family is from Angouleme).  The one exception is Corsica.

Since 1960, Corsica has suffered through periods of unrest highlighted by violence committed by Corsican nationalist groups.  Because of its location, the culture of Corsica incorporates traditions from France, Spain, as well as Italy.  In the mid to late 1970s, the underground independence movement was responsible for a number of assassinations, including mayors and policemen.  The government in Paris reacted aggressively and many arrests were made.  In the 1990s, the independence movement collapsed due to internal conflict, and in 2000, French President Lionel Jospin granted increased autonomy to Corsica.  Since then steps have been taken to protect the indigenous language, which is close to extinction.  One issue that has consistently caused problems is the building of summer/vacation homes in Corsica by wealthy Parisian families.  The last time I checked, the Parisians were winning, I'm sorry to say (of course, there's nothing wrong with a polite, half-French, half-Texan buying a vacation house in Bastia, right?).  You can commit the Corsican independence movement to history; France has won.

I am fascinated by the case of Belgium.  Fifty-five percent of Belgians (the northern side) speak Flemish (Dutch), and forty-five percent (the southern side), speak French and call themselves Walloons.  I once read an article which described Belgium as suffering from a case of "linguistic apartheid", which, ironically, is a Dutch word.  Basically, Belgium is a country made up of two separate nationalities, the Flemish and the Walloons, and neither side wants to play with the other.  Belgium is a wealthy country of 11.2 million souls, and (more irony), its capital Brussels is considered the de facto capital of the European Union.  Having spent some time in Belgium, I must say there seems to be a bit of snobbery at play on the part of the Flemish.  What keeps Belgium together?  More than anything else, its royal family.  Don't misunderstand; the Belgians don't adore their royals as the Dutch love the House of Orange.  Its just that the royal family seems to be the one thing that presides equally over both sides.  The rational thing to do would be for the Netherlands to annex north Belgium and for France to annex the south.  Brussels (and its environs) could remain a city-state, continuing its important functions relating to NATO and the EU.  But for something this prolific to happen, enough folks on both side would have to make the effort.  And no one cares enough to make the effort.

I won't delve into the examples of German "independence movements", because they follow the same examples of mainland France.  Bavarians want to talk about independence, but only if you come for Oktoberfest and drink lots of beer.  If you enjoy history as much as I do, you will appreciate the case of South Tyrol.  This situation involves Austria, not Germany; but I took advantage of the shared language to build a nice segue.  Time for a bit of history.  In 1914, The Austro-Hungarian Empire and the German Empire went to war against France, Russia, England, and Serbia (the Ottoman Empire, the United States, Italy and a few others joined later).  At the time, Germany and Austria-Hungary (Central Powers) were bound by a mutual-defense treaty with Italy.  The Italians chose to interpret their obligations quite narrowly and announced neutrality.  In 1915, Italy renounced its neutrality and declared war on the central Powers (Italy's former allies).  After the war, the victorious Allies dismembered Austria-Hungary, and, in payment for services rendered, gave Italy large swaths of Austrian territory including South Tyrol.  Even though another World War has occurred (in which the Italians switched sides AGAIN), many Austrians still resent Italy's land grab.  The former province of Tyrol is now split into North Tyrol (Austria) and South Tyrol (Italy).  Even today, seventy percent of people in South Tyrol speak German and identify themselves as ethnically Austrian.  Austrians in Tyrol take this issue very seriously, and at times groups of armed men have gathered in the mountains, anticipating hostilities.  Why won't Italy act sensibly, and return South Tyrol to Austria?  It has everything to do with the fact that South Tyrol is a wealthy province, with a booming tourist industry and a robust agricultural sector.  Unfortunately for Austrian Tyrolians, the government in Vienna is more pacifist than Heidi, and does nothing more than occasionally mention the issue politely through diplomatic channels.  In 1866, Italy demanded an end to Austrian rule in Venice because Venice was obviously an Italian city.  In 1918, the situation repeated itself with Trieste.  How about a little fair play from Rome?  Don't hold your breath.

I began this post with a bit of reflection on the Scottish referendum, and really never made any correlations.  I guess that was the point.  Every circumstance is different, and the independence issues on the mainland bear more similarities to the late problems in northern Ireland than they to do the temporary family disagreement over Scotland's status.  I do believe the issues mentioned above will attract the attention of the European media some time before the end of the year (with the exception of Corsica), as some dispensation has been debated.  Personally, I'm anxious to see the Quebec independence movement (Mouvement Souverainiste du Quebec) reassert itself and call for another referendum.  In 1995, the vote was razor-thin, with fifty-one-percent voting against independence and 49 percent in favor.

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