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Society

'EU independence referendums have little effect'

Fabian Zuleeg of the European Policy Center says that polls in regions like Catalonia showing the wish for independence should not be taken too seriously. The people just want to make a statement.

DW: There are increasing attempts to separate from the motherland in regions like Veneto, Catalonia and Scotland. Why?

Fabian Zuleeg: Independence movement have existed in many regions in Europe for a long time. But obviously the economic crisis has led to frictions in several countries which have strengthened independence movements.

Is this phenomenon weakening the EU or the European idea?

No, because the referenda are a national issue and not an EU issue. The independence refers to the central government and not to Brussels. And it would be difficult for the countries that want to separate to survive outside the EU in the long run.

How do you see the chances for such referenda?

The referendum in Scotland has good chances because it was accepted by the central government in London. That means if they vote "yes" - and they only need a simple majority - Scotland would become independent. That also changes the voting behavior.

It is different in Italy and Spain. The central government in Spain does not recognize the plan for a referendum in Catalonia. A lot has to happen before Catalonia could become independent. The population knows that the referendum is not legally binding.

That's why you shouldn't read too much into the recent referendum in Veneto. You can't really say how the people would really decide if the referendum were to be legally binding. The people just want to make a statement.

Are these separatist movements leading towards the plethora of small states we saw in the 19th century?

No, the EU has led to major change. Many functions that once belonged to the national level have been transferred to Europe. The smaller EU member states have to stick to EU guidelines and therefore have more opportunities to develop. The comparison with the small states of the 19th century, which easily led to conflicts, is outdated.

Do you think the EU should act against the independence movements?

I don't think that it is the task of the EU to intervene in domestic debates. The EU can only point out the consequences regarding membership.

Jose Manuel Barroso, the EU Commission President, has made a clear statement: If Scotland separates from Great Britain, the chances of its joining the EU would be very small. What would be the consequences for newly independent countries?

I think it depends on the circumstances. A region that has fallen out with the central government will really have problems to join the EU. The separatist government and the central government need to have an agreement to quickly manage an accession.

Why do they need an agreement?

When a country splits and the two parts don't agree, like with Catalonia and Spain - where the separations is legally impossible - then it would be very difficult for the region to become a part of the European Union. In the case of Scotland I see it this way: if the British government is happy with the agreement, then it could become a member of the EU.

Furthermore why should the EU refuse to allow a country to join the EU if it meets the criteria for an accession? That would disagree with the idea of European unification.

Fabian Zuleeg is the Chief Executive of the European Policy Center, a Brussels-based think tank which promotes European integration.

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