In that past week, events in Crimea have dominated the news. Particular attention has been given to the referendum to secede from Ukraine and join the Russian Federation, which received an alleged 93 percent vote in favor. However, this is not the only independence referendum taking place in Europe this year. In fact, there are three other regions of Europe that are looking to potentially secede from their mother countries. These regions are Scotland, Catalonia, and Veneto.
The one that has gotten the least international coverage is the referendum in Veneto. Part of the reason for this is because it is an unofficial online poll. The other reason is that it took place just over the past week from March 16 to 21. For obvious reasons, the Crimean vote and its aftermath dominated headlines instead. The referendum in Veneto was originally launched by separatist fringe parties in the Veneto region. The region is centered around Venice, and includes historic cities such as Padua, Verona, and Vicenza. The referendum was organized through Plebiscito.eu, an independent organization, and originally received little attention. However, with the recession and economic crisis and the political upheaval in Italy over the past two years, the referendum started to gather some attention and popularity. It plays on both the element of Venetian nationalism in the region and the disapproval of corruption and poor economic policy in Rome. The region of Veneto, which is nearly contiguous with the borders of the Republic of Venice during much of its thousand year existence, maintains its own Venetian language spoken by much of the population. Additionally, the cultural distinction of the Venetians feeds into much of the nationalist sentiment. Veneto is also one of the richest regions in Italy. Veneto as a region gives much more to the Italian government than it gets back in investment, which is one of the reasons behind the push for independence.
The referendum was conducted over the week of March 16 to the 21. Over that week, residents of Veneto were sent passcodes that they could use to validate their residency and then vote in the referendum. Overall, over 2.3 million people voted in the referendum; nearly 4/5 of the total number of registered voters in the region. The result of the referendum was a resounding 89% in favor for Venetian independence. In subsequent questions, a majority of voters, though with smaller turnout, voted in favor of staying in the EU and NATO and retaining the euro if Veneto did become independent. These votes go against some of the policies of the pro-independence parties, so it is uncertain what the outcome would be if Veneto does eventually become its own state. As of now, however, the referendum is only the first step in the process. The president of the Veneto region, Luca Zaia, has given full support to Venetian independence and now his Lega Veneto party will push for an official referendum. Naturally, Italian officials in Rome claim the referendum is meaningless and that secession would violate the Italian constitution. However, this much force in support of independence cannot be ignored. It remains to be seen what the next step in the process will be, or if anything substantial will come out of the movement. Most likely, Veneto as a region could gain more autonomy in its affairs, on par with the neighboring regions of Trento-Alto Adige and Friuli-Venezia Giulia.
While Veneto’s referendum was this past week, the other votes on independence are not set to take place until later this year. Scotland’s referendum is already planned for September, and the campaigns for independence or remaining part of the United Kingdom are already in full swing. The call for an independence referendum came when the Scottish Nationalist Party won a majority in the Scottish parliament following the 2011 parliamentary elections. With the SNP controlling 69 out of 129 seats in parliament, the mandate was finally there to pursue an independence referendum. In November 2013, the Scottish parliament passed a bill to introduce the referendum. The date for the independence referendum is now set for September 18, 2014.
The campaign for independence highlights many of the issues facing Scotland and its place in the United Kingdom. The main arguments for Scottish independence are primarily associated with the principle of self-determination for Scotland. If given independence, Scotland would take control over its own defence and foreign policy as well as be independent of London regarding trade and economic issues. These issues primarily concern the question of continued membership in the European Union and NATO. Growing euro-skepticism in the United Kingdom has cast doubt over continued British membership in the EU, and polls have shown a greater support for staying in the EU in Scotland than in the UK as a whole. If Scotland were to gain its independence and a referendum were held in the United Kingdom on EU membership, it is possible that Scotland would remain part of the EU while the rest of the current United Kingdom leaves the union.
Another argument for Scottish independence revolves around the North Sea oil reserves. Much of the North Sea oil fields within the British exclusive economic zone lie in the territorial waters of Scotland. However, the profits from the oil resources currently go to the United Kingdom as a whole. The campaign for Scottish independence claims that the profits from the oil fields should be used to benefit Scotland alone as in their mind it is Scotland’s oil, not Britain’s. The oil fields could potentially bring the Scottish government much greater funding, but there would most likely be a temporary profit-sharing agreement should independence actually happen. While the oil argument is the main economic argument in favor of independence, many economic arguments support Scotland remaining with the United Kingdom. The greater burden of operating as a separate country for Scotland would need increased spending from Edinburgh. Additionally, many British businesses operating in Scotland have stated they would look into moving to England should Scotland become independent. This is due to the economic instability that would naturally occur during the independence process, and the perception that Scotland is better off as part of a greater and more globalized economy like the UK. Were Scotland to become independent, the United Kingdom would remain its largest trading partner, and a hiccup in the trade relations such as if one were to leave the European Union would probably hurt Scotland’s economy more than it would the rest of the United Kingdom.
With the vote in September, it is still too far out to really speculate on how the referendum will go. However, most polls have shown the vote against independence ahead by between ten to fifteen percent. The margin between those in favor and those against an independent Scotland has grown smaller in the recent months, however, so a continuing trend could push the vote for independence ahead by the time the referendum actually takes place.
Lastly, there is the Spanish region of Catalonia. Catalonia has long been a hotbed of separatism in Spain, with calls for independence frequent among Catalan politicians. Catalonia is also the most culturally distinct of these three regions form their respective mother countries. In 2013, the Catalan regional government, led by nationalist president Arturo Mas, set a date for a self-determination referendum for November 9, 2014.
Catalonia probably also has the best case for independence of these three regions as well. Catalonia has the second largest population of any of the regions of Spain, and approximately one in six Spaniards live in Catalonia. It is also one of the wealthiest regions of the country, with a gross regional product of over $262 billion. This is between 18 and 20 percent of the total Spanish GDP. Catalonia contains Barcelona, Spain’s second largest city, and also is one of the most industrial and urban areas of the country. The economic strength of Catalonia has become a large point of support for nationalists in the region since the Great Recession. As Spain’s economy struggled, Catalans saw that much of the money generated from the region was going to help the worse hit areas in the south and west of Spain. The desire for economic independence from Madrid is one of the driving factors behind the current swell of public support for an independent Catalonia.
As stated before, Catalonia is also one of the more worthy candidates culturally for becoming an independent state. Catalonia has for most of its recent history been part of Spain and governed from Madrid, but it has already sought independence three times in the past five centuries. In 1640, Catalonia was one of the hotbeds of rebellion that struck the Habsburg monarchy in Spain that year. The Catalan rebellion was put down, but only after twelve years of rebellion. In the early 1700s during the War of Spanish Succession, Catalonia and the rest of the Crown of Aragon supported the Habsburg claimant to the Spanish throne against Phillip V, a Bourbon form neighboring France. In 1714, the siege of Barcelona by the Bourbon forces largely ended the war, and the fall of Barcelona on September 11, 1714 is now recognized as the Catalan National Day in honor of the valiant defence of Barcelona. The last Catalan rebellion against Madrid came in the 1930s during the Spanish Civil War. Catalonia was a Republican stronghold against Francisco Franco’s Nationalist forces throughout the war, but again eventually lost. During Franco’s regime, Catalan nationalism and the Catalan language were suppressed, and the region regained some autonomy in the late 1970s after Franco’s death and the transition of Spain to a constitutional monarchy.
Now, however, there are more tensions brewing between the government in Barcelona and the Spanish government in Madrid. Polls show a growing support among Catalans for independence. Support has grown to nearly half the country outright and there have been large public demonstrations in the past couple years in support of a referendum. However, despite the regional government’s declaration of a referendum on November 9 2014, Madrid has continually denied that any referendum will happen. All the major national parties have declared that a referendum would be illegal. However, a coalition of regional pro-independence parties currently controls the Catalan parliament and seems determined to make the referendum happen. Even the Catalan branch of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party, Spain’s main left-wing party, has expressed support for a referendum.
However, this emphatic opposition by Madrid could present a big problem to Catalonia should it vote to become independent. Firstly, there is the possibility of Spanish military action if Catalonia secedes. This, however, seems unlikely in the current international climate. Even if Catalonia successfully breaks away, there is still going to be hurdles to overcome. Unlike with the Scottish referendum, the EU has stated there would be no automatic path into the union for an independent Catalonia. Because of this, the Spanish government would almost certainly block Catalonia’s entrance into the EU. This would be a huge disruption to the Catalan trade, especially the tourism industry, and endanger the new state’s economy. The main factor in whether the independence vote succeeds will most certainly be the performance of the Spanish economy over the coming months. If Spain recovers enough, the prospect of a stable economy could drive the vote back toward remaining in Spain. However, if there is a small dip in the economy and unemployment remains at its current levels, it could unite even more Catalans behind the idea of independence. If Catalonia does vote for independence and act on it, it would create a delicate situation in Western Europe and bring reminders of the current situation in Crimea with it.
The biggest question still remains about these independence movements; are they isolated incidents specific to these cultural movements, or are they the start of a wider move toward the formation of smaller, more locally oriented states. With supranational entities and large customs and currency unions such as the European Union becoming more present around the world, the need for centralized administrations and larger states is becoming less relevant in the modern day. If it were just Catalonia and Scotland that were having a referendum this year, it could be discounted as being special to those two regions’ specific circumstances. However, the potential rise of an independence movement in Veneto puts the idea of a slow breakup of the larger European states into the realm of possibility. We could, in the future, see a desire for more autonomy in other places. There is already a strong movement do divide Belgium into its Flemish and French speaking halves. Bavaria has long maintained its separate cultural identity within Germany and has a small separatist movement. However, to a large extent these movements also are part of a desire by relatively rich regions such as Catalonia and Veneto to keep their tax money in their regions and not subsidize the poorer areas of Europe. On an international scale this manifested in the reluctance to bail out Portugal, Spain, Greece, and other struggling economies after the Great Recession. Now it is being demonstrated within these states. Perhaps the movements could subside if the economy improves, but if it does not it could lead to the end of the traditional nation-state and a return to a larger collection of smaller states within Europe.