Skip to main content

Demonstrators hold a Basque flag during a demonstration. The Basque in Spain closely watching the Catalans take on the central government in Madrid.<240>REUTERS/Reuters

British Prime Minister David Cameron was overheard saying the Queen "purred" with happiness when she was told the result of last week's referendum that kept Scotland within the United Kingdom.

Mr. Cameron has since apologized for speaking about a private conversation with the Queen, but she was likely not the only European head of state openly pleased. As support for Scotland's pro-independence camp rose ahead of the Sept. 18 vote, so did anxiety around the European Union about the momentum a Scottish Yes vote would give to separatist movements on the continent.

Flags from the Catalonia region of Spain were frequently seen among the Scottish Saltires at pro-independence rallies in Glasgow, while other separatist movements, such as Italy's Northern League, sent observers to Scotland to draw inspiration. There was also interest from further-flung fellow travellers – from Quebec to Okinawa to eastern Ukraine – but it's inside the EU where anxiety was highest.

"If [independence] had happened in Scotland, I think it would have been a political landslide on the scale of the breakup of the Soviet Union," EU trade commissioner Karel De Gucht said after the No win. Mr. De Gucht hails from the Flanders region of Belgium, where Flemish nationalists are calling for the country to be divided into its Flemish and French-speaking halves.


This affluent region centred around Barcelona will be the next big test for Europe as we know it. Catalonia is on course to hold a referendum of its own on Nov. 9. But things look likely to get far nastier in Spain than they did in the U.K.

One big difference is the attitude of the central governments. After the separatist Scottish National Party (SNP) won control of Scotland's parliament in 2011, Mr. Cameron was eager to hold an in-or-out referendum and decide the issue. But the Spanish government in Madrid says the Nov. 9 referendum is illegal – the Spanish constitution only allows referendums the entire country participates in – and has warned it won't recognize the result.

That appears to have hardened the determination of the separatist movement. On Catalonia's national day, Sept. 11, an estimated 1.8 million people (out of a regional population of 7.4 million) marched in Barcelona to demand the right to hold a referendum.

One day after the Scottish vote, Catalonia's parliament – dominated by nationalist parties – passed a resolution calling for the Nov. 9 referendum to go ahead. The Catalan government says a Yes vote would give it a mandate to negotiate for independence from Madrid.

Catalonia has been part of Spain since the 15th century but has retained its distinct language and culture. Polls show that support for its independence hovers around 50 per cent, higher when undecided voters are taken out of the math. There's even clearer support for holding a referendum.

Pro-independence sentiment has risen sharply since a 2010 decision by Spain's Constitutional Court overruled a statute that had declared Catalonia to be a nation within Spain. The court decreed the term had no legal weight, since Spain itself was the only nation recognized by the constitution.

Like Scotland – where the SNP argued that Scots could go it alone thanks to abundant natural resources – many Catalans believe they would be better off economically if their region didn't have to pay taxes to Madrid. Catalans are well aware that they contribute almost 20 per cent of the federal budget, but receive less than 15 per cent of all spending.


Basque nationalism has historically been more troublesome for Spain than Catalonia's, but these days the Basques – who claim a region straddling parts of Spain and France – are watching from the sidelines as the Catalans take on the central government.

ETA, the infamous separatist movement that killed hundreds in a decades-long campaign of violence, agreed to lay down arms in 2010. Two years later, it said it was willing to negotiate a "definitive end" to its operations. Its popular appeal has been blunted by a 1976 devolution of power that left the Basques of Spain with their own police force, and in complete control of their own finances.

But Basque politicians have made it clear they're watching what happens in Catalonia with interest. If Catalonia goes, no one would be surprised to see the Basque region, whose 2.2 million residents are Spain's richest citizens on a per capita basis, try to follow.

If both Catalonia and the Basque region were to leave, Spain – a country already in deep financial crisis – would lose a quarter of its gross domestic product.


Belgium, which has seven different levels of parliament (plus the EU) governing a population of just over 11 million, already has all the devolution imaginable.

And yet the idea of splitting the country into its Flemish-speaking and French-speaking halves – Flanders and Wallonia, respectively – never seems to go away. After all, the Belgian state is just 184 years old, born not out of any sense of nationhood, but the need for a buffer between France and what was then Prussia.

The debate has been rekindled afresh by the electoral triumphs of the separatist New Flemish Alliance, which won the largest number of seats in 2010 national elections, and in elections to Flanders' parliament earlier this year. The party's leader, Bart De Wever, was also elected mayor of Antwerp in 2012.

The New Flemish Alliance has, so far, not sought to go down the referendum road chosen by Scotland and Catalonia, hoping instead to work with political parties in Wallonia to make Belgium an even looser federation, en route to an eventual Czechoslovakia-style "velvet divorce."

Northern Italy

Six months before Scots lined up to vote on independence, some residents of Venice took part in a little-noticed "referendum" of their own.

There were plenty of reasons to disregard the vote organized by the pro-independence group, (formerly known as Plebiscite 2013). It was a privately organized ballot, with no credible monitoring and no consequences attached to voting "Yes." But the results have nonetheless generated debate. Almost 90 per cent of those who took part voted "Yes" to the question: "Do you want Veneto to be a federal, independent and sovereign state?"

(The level of "turnout" is hotly disputed. The organizers claimed 63 per cent; critics say it was less than 5 per cent and allege that many non-Venetians and non-Italians voted.)

The online plebiscite achieved what the organizers wanted, which was to get the "Venice question" onto the agenda of politicians. The regional council in Venice, which is controlled by the Northern League – a political party that lobbies for more regional autonomy – passed a motion in July calling for a formal referendum to be held asking the same question that did. Rome denied the motion, but the Venetian government said "discussing independence is no longer a taboo."

Venice is just one region of Italy toying with charting its own course as the country, which was stitched together in the 19th century from a patchwork of smaller states, remains mired in seemingly permanent economic and political crisis.

The Northern League also controls the regional assembly in the northwestern region of Piedmont.

And opinion polls put support for independence at 40 per cent on the island of Sardinia. Disillusionment with Rome is so strong there that a group of Sardinians who don't think the island can go it alone have asked the central government to sell the island to Switzerland.


Sky-is-falling editorialists in the United Kingdom raised the idea that a Yes vote in Scotland would set off a chain reaction that would forever take the "U" out of the U.K. If Scotland voted "Yes," Wales and Northern Ireland would race to be next out the door.

But Wales doesn't want independence. In fact, a survey released Wednesday shows just 3 per cent of the Welsh currently favour independence, a level of support that pollsters say shrunk during the Scottish campaign.

The reasons why are illustrative. Though the Welsh have the same complicated feelings toward England and the English that Scots do, few in Wales believe they'd be better off economically if they severed ties with the rest of the U.K.

What Scotland, Catalonia, Basque and Venice all have in common is that they are well-off regions within the larger state, and net contributors to national budgets. The Welsh, unlike 45 per cent of Scots, clearly feel they're better off staying in the union.

The U.K. is popular these days in Northern Ireland too, if only because Ireland's economic struggles make rule by London look good.

Russians in Ukraine and Latvia

One fear in Eastern Europe is that the Kremlin – which has twice this year stirred up separatist sentiment in Ukraine: first in Crimea, which was annexed by Russia in March, then in the southeastern regions of Donetsk and Lugansk – will turn its attention next to the tiny Baltic states.

Latvia is the most vulnerable, with its large Russian-speaking minority. (More than a third of Latvians say they speak Russian at home.) In April, a small group of protesters from the eastern region of Latgale protested at the Latvian embassy in Moscow, calling for Latgale to be joined to Russia.

That's a far-fetched notion at the moment, but at the start of this year few could have imagined Crimea joining Russia, or Donetsk and Lugansk effectively breaking away from the rest of Ukraine.

State-run Russian media devoted heavy coverage to the Scotland referendum. They openly cheered the Yes side, and – in apparent payback for Western media's criticism of the Crimea, Donetsk and Lugansk votes – tried to cast doubt on the fairness of the No side's win.

Portraying itself as the champion of self-determination comes with obvious risks for Moscow, however. Separatist groups from Chechnya to Kaliningrad to Siberia and the Far East – movements that don't get much time on Russian TV – might be forgiven for watching the fawning coverage of those who stood up to the central government in Ukraine and wondering why they too shouldn't do the same.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

Follow the author of this article:

Check Following for new articles

Interact with The Globe