Could the greatest threat to the unity and future of the European Union come from within the member states? For a long time, the concerns were coming from capitals seeking to leave the block, economic difficulties or even foreign pressures. With the 2016 Brexit vote, the national decision to exit the EU has in fact proven to foster unity among the member states on maintaining the integrity of the Union. But with the 2014 Scottish referendum (calls for a second referendum are being advanced), the movements within the nation-states to seek for greater regional autonomy, influence, and power from the national capital have been relentless.
The Catalan crisis is an illustration of a region seeking for independence from its state. The fraught relations between Madrid and Barcelona are real (read past analyses here and here). The crisis continues to escalate. Over the weekend, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy declared that Madrid, the central government, would remove the region’s secessionist leaders. PM Rajoy announced the use of the Article 155 of the Spanish constitution, a radical step and an unprecedented event, which will dismiss the Catalan Cabinet, see Madrid assume all the powers of the regional executive, curb the role of the regional parliament and call for new regional election in the coming six-months. The central government does not seem keen at the moment to seek for mediation, but rather continues down the road of confrontation.
In addition, over the weekend, two wealthy Italian regions, Lombardy and Veneto, voted in non-binding referendums in favor of greater autonomy and seeking more power from Rome. These referendums, promoted by the Northern League ruling both regions, are not calls for secession from Rome, but instead a call for greater say and influence on issues of tax distribution and financial independence on several areas such as security, immigration and education.
Both Northern Italian regions contribute to a significant share of the Italian economy, with 20 percent for Lombardy and 10 percent for Veneto. Despite a significant share of Italian GDP, last summer Veneto received a €17bn rescue deal to address the banking crisis.
Even though it is too early to talk of a full fragmentation of some member states and the European Union, several trends and observations shall be advanced in order to rationalize and explain these forces at play. Prior to looking at a series of questions, which could contribute to the development of a series of hypotheses, one ought to recognize the complexities and particularities of each secessionist movements and the unique histories of the member states within the EU and their relationships with Brussels. These hypotheses try to identify commonalities between the recent movements in order to comprehend the reemergence of these regional forces.
- Are wealthy regions done with solidarity via financial redistributions to other regions/states? Should the EU or the state be blamed for it?
- Are these referendums informed by a conscious desire to guarantee cultural and linguistic survival, authenticity and uniqueness in a globalized world? This feeling is very much represented in Catalonia (despite being a major global touristic destination), in Nice and Corsica (France), and so forth.
- Is the EU perceived as the enemy? In some regions of the EU, the EU or Brussels and in particular the Commission, are perceived as the actor promoting economic liberalism and ultimately undermining a certain savoir vivre. But in the recent case of Catalonia, the EU is called upon to mediate in domestic politics and national matters. Even further, there are some cases of desire to join the Union as a full member, which is a fantasy considering the responses of most European capitals and support to PM Rajoy.
- The regional calculus takes for granted the core responsibility of the nation-state: national security and survival of the state. War and peace are forgotten concepts in Western Europe, which is quite ironic considering the state of European peripheries from the East (Ukraine) to the Mediterranean basin.
- Are referendums the way to proceed in order engage with the central government? Do referendums serve the interests of the majority or only of the few?
- Do these separatist movements inform us of a higher desire of activism and democratic inclusion? Meaning, there is a feeling of deposition to control civic life and influence the making of the nation. By scaling down from the national capital to the regional capital, there is a belief that one can have a greater say and influence in shaping the policy-making process and therefore the policy outputs. This democratic argument was very much present in the Brexit vote. These movements represent to some extent the end of centralized nation-states. But does this feeling of democratic inclusion at a lower level illustrate a narrow understanding of the world? It is not certain that an hypothetical sovereign Catalan state can, on its own, weather global forces from flow of capital to people.
Lastly, could we go even further and see these regional forces as the success of the European Union emphasizing that the state is now unable to fulfil the need of national citizens. In the case of Catalonia, the EU flag has been flown along the regional symbols. However, it is not certain that other regions would feel the same way. But if this were the case, the current EU would not be suited for the move towards a federation of regions considering that it is currently a Union of Sovereign States.