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European Ties

EU debt crisis gives boost to separatists

Language, economy, history - there are many motives governing Europe's separatist movements. The recent vote in Spain's Catalonia region has re-ignited debates across the European Union.

When the national anthem rings out before a Spanish national soccer match, there is little to be heard from the crowd, except the occasional "la-la-la" along to the melody. That's because the Spanish national anthem has no official lyrics. Spain is a country with many large regional groups that all speak their own language. Though Spanish is the official national language, it often plays a subordinate role at the regional level.

The people of Catalonia - one of the economically stronger areas of a country currently strangled by the European financial crisis - went to the polls last Sunday (25.11.2012) to elect a new parliament. Catalonian President Artur Mas, a conservative separatist, had called the election two years early in the hope of widening his governing majority to bolster efforts to declare Catalonia independent of Spain.

But the plan backfired. His CiU party only won 50 of the parliament's 135 seats, keeping its position as the second largest faction, but losing 12 seats.

More than a million persons take part into a demonstration against the sentence of the Constitutional Court about the proposal for reform of the Statute of Autonomy of Catalonia, in Barcelona, northeastern Spain, Saturday 10 July 2010.EFE/Marta Perez
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Independence is not the only issue in Catalonia

Plea for independence

Berthold Rittberger, professor of political science at the University of Munich and an expert on regional integration, does not think the result is a sign of the population's opposition to autonomy, but rather a rebuke to the regional government's policies in other areas. "The election shows that you can win votes on a separatist platform, but that doesn't automatically mean that the voters think this issue dominates everything," Rittberger told DW.

The leftist separatist party ERC did gain seats on Sunday, doubling its share of the vote. Mas lost no time in announcing that he would stick to his plan to hold a referendum on independence.

Importance of economy

Catalonia's autonomy, established against the will of the Spanish government in Madrid, would be unprecedented in a democratic country in post-war Europe. The division of Czechoslovakia into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993 was completed peacefully with the full consent of both sides. The fragmentation of the former republic of Yugoslavia, on the other hand, descended into war after various plebiscites in individual regions, before Yugoslavia finally broke apart. Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, but its status within international law remains unclear to this day.

A Scottish Saltire flag blows in the wind near the statue of Scottish King Robert the Bruce, at Bannockburn, Scotland, Thursday, Jan. 12, 2012. The monument commemorates Robert the Bruce whose army defeated the English army in 1314. This week the Scottish Government has announced that they wish to hold an independence referendum in 2014. (AP Photo / Chris Clark)

Scotland represents an unusual independence movement

Though the reasons behind the desire for independence vary, and an individual cultural and linguistic identity plays a vital role, it is almost always the economically strong regions that want autonomy. Whether it's Catalonia, Southern Tyrolia in Italy, or Flanders in Belgium, they all pay more into their respective national state coffers than they get out of them and they all subsidize economically weaker areas.

As a consequence, the current financial and economic crisis is enflaming the debate among European nations. Not that any of the independence movements are considering leaving the EU - on the contrary, Catalonia, Southern Tyrolia and Flanders all hope to be independent members.

Scottish exception

The situation in Scotland is a little different, however. Here, the progress towards separation is the most advanced. In 2014, Scotland will hold a referendum on independence from the United Kingdom with the official acquiescence of the British government in London.

But here, economic motives play only a secondary role. Scotland is not really one of Britain's economic motors. "With the Scots, we don't even know if the budget will be enough to finance the Scottish welfare state," Roland Sturm, political scientist at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg, told DW.

That might be why current opinion polls show that only a third of Scots would vote for independence. But the Scots do have two things that the Catalonians do not have: their own national soccer team and an - unofficial - national anthem with lyrics.

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