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Headshot of Jeffrey Simpson.Brigitte Bouvier/The Globe and Mail

Are some big, peaceful, democratic countries fracturing in the next few years? Likely not, but for Spain, Great Britain, Canada and Belgium, parties that run or influence regional governments want to break up these highly successful countries with long histories.

Next Monday, British Prime Minister David Cameron and First Minister of Scotland Alex Salmond will sign an agreement allowing Scotland to hold a "yes or no" referendum on independence in two years. The latest poll showed the independence option with just 28 per cent support, 25 points behind the constitutional status quo. (Previous polls have shown the gap much smaller.) But Mr. Salmond will be flashing every tartan, recalling every heroic battle from centuries ago, summoning every image of a brighter economic future for Scotland and using all his considerable guile and oratorical skills to break up the United Kingdom.

Well, not quite, since Mr. Salmond wants an independent Scotland to retain the British currency, the British monarchy and a host of other links designed to reassure people that life will go on without much interruption or pain should Scotland secede.

In Spain, meanwhile, the Spanish Parliament voted this week to block Catalonia from holding a referendum on independence, as had been proposed by the Catalan secessionist leader Artur Mas. His proposed referendum came on the heels of a massive pro-secession demonstration in Barcelona a few weeks ago and the central government's refusal to allow Catalonia to create its own tax collection agency. Secession is illegal under the Spanish constitution, but Mr. Mas says the constitution won't stop his region from leaving, if it comes to that. Catalonia is also in such terrible economic shape that it has been shut out of international debt markets and has been seeking a bailout from the rest of Spain – a classic example of biting the hand from which you want to be fed.

Belgium is riven by tensions between Dutch-speaking Flanders and French-speaking Wallonia, with the capital, Brussels, caught in the middle. A secessionist party in Flanders has been campaigning for more autonomy and, if possible, a breakup. A variety of plans have been drafted for splitting up the country: Flanders and Brussels, Wallonia and Brussels and even all three as separate entities. So far, much talk has produced no consensus, let alone a solution.

Here in Canada, the secessionist Parti Québécois was elected last month with a very slim plurality in the popular vote, which allowed it to form a fragile minority government. Already the PQ has been backtracking from various election promises, such as demanding the transfer of new powers from Ottawa and making retroactive changes to the tax system. Polls have consistently shown that a majority of Quebeckers do not want to secede from Canada, and the PQ can read polls.

Each of these breakup threats is, of course, rooted in different histories, causes, personalities and current realities. They all have a hard intellectual case to make, since each of the threatened countries offers, by any reasonable measurement, a high standard of living to its people (although Spain is suffering at the moment) and full protection of human rights. This explains why each secessionist movement is unlikely to succeed, although much time and energy will be expended in the effort.

The secessionist case, at heart, is a cultural one: that the minority is different than the majority in some defined way – the definitions being usually exaggerated – and can only assert and protect its difference by leaving the old country.

To justify cultural nationalism, secessionists paint a brighter economic future for their smaller state – an assertion usually based on either flimsy or distorted evidence. Just in case, secessionists insist their little states will be part of larger economic blocs to secure their prosperity, although how a little country such as Catalonia or Flanders or Scotland would have a stronger voice in the huge European Union than within their existing countries is unanswerable.

Similarly, Quebec as an independent country would want to join NAFTA, but it would have to yield some of its sovereignty, leave its monetary policy to the Bank of Canada should it choose to use the Canadian dollar and fail to benefit from the redistribution mechanisms of Canadian federalism – in short, buy a dream rather than a reality.

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