Separatism in Europe

Historically, separatism was more regional; now it's anti-EU
April 13, 2018 Updated: August 9, 2018

One of the surprising results of Italy’s election in March was a huge jump in support for the League–formerly known as the Northern League–up to nearly 18 percent, from around only 4 percent in 2013.

In October 2017, the party’s leader, Matteo Salvini, said that the time had come for the League to progress from a regional movement to a national party that addresses all Italians.

The transformation was surprising. The Northern League had once campaigned on a separatist platform. The movement, born of regional identity politics and disdain for “lazy” southerners and the central authorities in Rome, has now successfully transformed itself into an Italian nationalist party, one that is euroskeptic and opposed to Muslim immigration.

This example of a separatist party evolving into one espousing national unity will probably remain an anomaly. Separatism in Europe has historically been very regional, though recent movements are anti-European Union.


The separatist movement in Catalonia has undergone a complex evolution since its independence referendum on Oct. 1, 2017. The vote was called by the Catalan Parliament and supported by a diverse group of parties, including the center-right Together for Catalonia (Junts per Catalunya), the leftist Republican Left of Catalonia (known by its initials in Catalan as ERC), and the ultra-leftist Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP).

The Constitutional Court of Spain ruled the referendum illegal, and Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy reacted by sending in the civil guard and national police to stop the vote.

Despite Madrid’s efforts, the referendum took place, with more than 92 percent voting in favor of independence (many opponents abstained). After the Catalan Parliament declared independence, Madrid suspended Catalonia’s autonomy, dismissed its government, and called new elections. The Catalonia regional elections on Dec. 21, 2017, granted a very slight majority to the pro-independence parties, causing a complete paralysis.

In contrast to most other separatist movements in Europe, which typically oppose the European Union, the Catalan separatists want recognition from the EU and even membership in the bloc. But so far, both Brussels and the member governments have maintained solidarity with Madrid and refused to engage in dialogue with Barcelona.

It is hard to see how the Catalonia independence movement can move forward from here. Along with the deadlock in parliament, the pro-independence parties cannot agree on the next step, with the CUP calling for immediate separation from Spain, while its allies favor a gradual approach. There is also still no agreement on who should lead the regional government.

Degrees of Separation

The indecision between autonomy and independence prevails among the main separatist movements in Europe, including some of the more persistent ones, like that of the Basque region of Spain. The Basque Nationalist Party (EAJ-PNV), on the center-right of the political spectrum, has always denied connections with the militant Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA).

Classified as a terrorist group by Spain, France, the EU, the United Kingdom, and the United States, ETA accepted a cease-fire in 2011 that is still in effect. Significant fiscal privileges for the Basque Country–greater than those granted to Catalonia–explain the truce’s staying power.

Perhaps due to Spain’s protracted nation-building process, aiming to bring together several previously independent entities, the list of regions that have gained some sort of autonomous status is long: Andalusia, Aragon, Asturias, the Balearic Islands, the Basque Country, the Canary Islands, Cantabria, Castile and Leon, Castile-La Mancha, Catalonia, the Community of Madrid, Extremadura, Galicia, La Rioja, Murcia, Navarre, and the Valencian Community.

In some of these regions, claims to independence are more serious than others. Catalonia, the Basque Country, and even Galicia have more legitimate claims, rooted in history, tradition, and language.

The trend today is that these movements have transitioned from violence to participation in the political process. Such has been the case with the Basques and ETA in Spain, and in Ireland with the Irish Republican Army. There is no guarantee this will continue; in fact, the situation could change very quickly. But smart policies can avoid a return to violence.

No Violence

One telling example is in Trentino-South Tyrol. Originally with an ethnically and linguistically German population, the region was, geographically, part of the Italian Peninsula. During the process of Italian unification, in 1866, there was an attempt to take the territory, which at the time was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Then, in 1918, with the defeat of the Central Powers after World War I and the dissolution of the Habsburg Empire, the region was annexed by Italy. Italian leader Benito Mussolini pushed hard for the “Italianization” of these regions, and after World War II, there was a surge of violence. In 1971, a new treaty between Italy and Austria stipulated international mediation for disputes in the region and gave it more autonomy. Tensions eased, and the violence fizzled out.

In areas that already have significant autonomy, nonviolence seems to be the rule; the Scottish independence movement has refrained from armed struggle, as have the Flemish of the New Flemish Alliance, which works for the independence of Flanders from Belgium within the constitutional framework.

Corsica provides another European example in which forces for independence moved from violence to politics. In the 1960s, the island went through a rupture caused by the collapse of French Algeria. After Algeria gained independence, the French government relocated some of Algeria’s French settlers (the Pieds-Noirs) to Corsica, granting them special rights on lands in the island’s east.

Their arrival and economic decline ignited a revival of separatism that, in the 1970s, led to the foundation of the National Liberation Front of Corsica (FLNC), an organization responsible for several bombings, armed attacks, and killings of police officers.

Now, the Corsican nationalist parties—Femu a Corsica, led by Gilles Simeoni (which favors autonomy), and Corsica Libera, led by Jean-Guy Talamoni (which favors independence)—together hold a majority in the Corsican Assembly.

Though the Corsican independence movement has been likened to Catalonia’s, French President Emmanuel Macron, on a recent visit to the island, was very adamant in his opposition to independence and in reaffirming France’s unity.

Sovereign Separatism

The main causes for the recent rise in national separatist movements throughout Europe are interconnected. The growth of Muslim immigration, mainly in the largest EU countries—France, Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom—but also in some of the Nordic and Benelux countries, is perceived as a threat to national identity, employment, and security.

Restricting such immigration has become a key political issue, fostering the growth of right-wing political movements. Globalization, with its tendency to move industries and jobs to lower-cost locations, and competition from immigrants, who are willing to work for lower wages, have made protectionism more appealing to Western Europeans.

For these movements, the EU is behind the unwanted globalization and immigration policies.

Governments in Central and Eastern European countries like Poland and Hungary, anchored in religious and nationalist values, have reacted strongly against the EU’s liberal, secular principles and favor much tougher immigration policies.

The question of separatism in sovereign states is, above all, the result of national and regional identities butting heads with larger, typically more globalized entities, which are perceived as distant, alien, and oppressive.

The movements are stronger when rooted in history, culture, language, and popular support, like Catalonia’s, and weaker when they manipulate folkloric identities to gain more financial or political autonomy, with little intention of creating a new political community. Both will present a crucial challenge for Europe in the coming years.

There are two possible scenarios for the evolution of European separatist movements. In one, Brussels and the EU leaders do not respond adequately to calls for more autonomy or independence in various regions. Discontent and protests will continue to gain momentum, while separatists will notch up more electoral success, leading to confrontation at the local and national levels.

In the other, more likely scenario, a peaceful modus vivendi could be achieved if the mainstream political forces take a more balanced approach to separatist and autonomist aspirations. Under this scenario, governments would realize that such sentiments are an understandable reaction to the problems brought about by globalization and multiculturalism. Instead of disparaging these movements as radical, irrational, or regressive overreactions, governments should deal with the root causes head-on.

Jaime Nogueira Pinto is a professor of political science at the universities of Lusíada in Lisbon and Católica in Porto. He is the editor of Futuro Presente, a quarterly review, and an expert for Geopolitical Intelligence Services. This article was first published by GIS Reports Online.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.