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The Politics of Secession in Europe

As the world continues to focus on Crimea’s de facto departure from Ukraine, territorial changes in Western Europe may soon garner headlines as well. Scotland’s independence vote is expected to attract an increasing amount of attention as it draws nearer, but recent developments in Spain have received less coverage.

The Mediterranean country has been grappling with a formidable secessionist movement in Catalonia for years, but those concerned with Spanish territorial unity recently received some encouraging news as the Basque insurgency group ETA, in another part of the country, has taken further steps to end its armed campaign.

The group has announced its intentions to give up all of its arms following a 2011 ceasefire it unilaterally established. The Basque region encompasses territory in both Spain and France, but the Spanish government has been most affected by the insurgency. ACC Secession in Europe (Picture Alliance DPA Deutsche Welle)

Perhaps resulting from its history with the group and the number of Spanish casualties of ETA’s campaign, there appears to be little appetite for negotiation. ETA is widely unpopular and not viewed as sufficiently threatening to warrant a thoroughly negotiated end to the conflict. In any event, there is every indication that a Basque insurgency is unlikely for the foreseeable future.

Despite these positive developments for authorities in Madrid, separatist inclinations persist in the Basque region and these interests may coalesce into a non-violent political struggle in the future.

Catalonia’s independence movement has employed this very tactic quite effectively in recent years. It has remained committed to peaceful democratic procedures and steadfastly refused to entertain the possibility of escalating to violence. Given the failures of armed insurgencies elsewhere in Europe, including Northern Ireland and the Basque region, this has been the most viable and strategically wise approach.

Despite the independence movement’s commitment to democratic procedures, authorities in Madrid have been forthright about their unwillingness to allow the Catalan population to hold a binding referendum on separation. Catalonia already holds a substantial degree of autonomy from Spain owing to its distinct culture, but it is viewed by the Spanish government as an integral part of the country nonetheless.

The sources of separatist sentiment in Catalonia are varied, and there has always been at least some support for independence, but the campaign to create a separate state has gained traction largely for economic reasons. With the onset of Europe’s devastating economic crisis and the disproportionate effect it had on Mediterranean states, frustrations within Catalonia grew.

Although there are some particular grievances Catalonians hold toward the government in Madrid regarding disproportionate taxation, ineffective public spending, and perceived corruption, their discontent is more general. The economic crisis that hit Spain did not spare Catalonia, but unlike other parts of Spain, public anger could be channeled into an already existing drive for statehood.

Essentially, the Catalonian independence movement can be seen as a form of protest against general rather than specific circumstances. If this analysis holds true, it suggests that widespread or even universal downturns, far from encouraging solidarity, can exacerbate existing internal territorial fissures.

If countries hope to retain their autonomous republics and culturally distinct regions, it may be necessary to recognize that failing to address widespread social concerns can precipitate geographically specific political difficulties. In an era of austerity throughout much of the world, this may prove to be an especially significant international political dynamic.

Daniel Troup
Daniel Troup is a graduate of the Peace and Conflict Studies program at the University of Toronto’s Trudeau Centre. He has experience as a research assistant in the University of Toronto’s Department of Political Science and has most recently worked as a research associate for the UN-based Global Policy Forum. His research interests include the political economy of peace and conflict, Latin American and European politics, as well as international relations theory.