Earlier this week, The New York Times noted that movements for greater local autonomy appear to be spreading throughout Europe. In some ways, the conflict in Catalonia is just the tip of the iceberg. The Times reports:
Coming on the heels of the Catalan vote, the Lombardy and Veneto referendums are yet another signal of the homegrown conflicts that persist in many of the European Union’s member states. Separatist movements are also simmering in Britain — where voters in Scotland rejected independence in a 2014 referendum but continue to debate the issue — as well as France, Germany, Belgium and Romania.
Like Catalonia – and unlike Scotland – the Lombardy and Veneto regions of Italy are among the wealthiest regions, and send enormous amounts of tax revenue to Rome. Italy's southern regions, which are significantly poorer than northern Italy, have benefited from Northern wealth ever since Italians were all forced into a single nation-state in the late nineteenth century.
This has never been forgotten by Italians from Veneto, many of whom participated in a referendum in 2014 to declare Independence. Naturally, the Italian government in Rome declared the vote invalid. At the time, however, I interviewed one of the organizers Paolo Bernardini about the referendum. (See "Inside Venice's Secession Movement.") At the time, secessionists liek Bernardini appeared to be pursuing immediate and total independence from Rome, while remaining inside the EU:
A tiny majority of Veneto people are in favor both of the EU and of the Euro as a currency. So I envisage a little, rich state, playing a major economic and political role in the EU, a stabilizing role. It will interact naturally with other rich and similar states, Bavaria (still part of Germany), Austria, and the Netherlands. It will be a Finland in the Adriatic.
According to the Times piece, though, supporters of Northern independence have gone back to taking small steps, and realize – probably correctly – that there are numerous steps that must be taken between the status quo and total independence.
The new effort appears to be focused on conducting local plebescites demanding more local autonomy. This doesn't conflict with the goal of eventual independence, of course, although it probably is an essential first step.
A region taking a gradualist approach is the Flemish-speaking region of northern Belgium, also known as Flanders. The Flanders situation has been noted in a multitude of media outlets looking to find "the next Catalonia." CNBC reports:
Political groups such as the New Flemish Alliance, a nationalist, conservative group which is dominant in the Belgian parliament, advocate a gradual secession of Flanders from Belgium. Euronews reported that the party even hung a Catalan flag outside its headquarters recently in support of the Spanish separatist region. With elections in 2019, the issue of Flemish independence is not likely to disappear soon.
The Catalonia and Scotland situations have brought secession issues to the fore in the English-language media, but there's nothing new about Belgium's problem. The unlikely unions of French-speaking and Flemish-speaking regions date back to 1830 when northern regions of Belgium won independence from the Netherlands. The resulting union known as Belgium has never been a totally comfortable one, as noted in a 2007 Chicago Tribune article, which compared Beligum to an unhappy and tired married couple:
They stay together mainly out of habit, and also because it would be such a headache to break up the household and divide the communal property.
If you know a couple like this, then you will understand the Belgians.
Dutch-speaking Flanders and French-speaking Wallonia are trapped in a loveless marriage called Belgium.
In today's Europe, divorce no longer carries the opprobrium it once did. The Czechoslovakians had a very amicable split in 1993. The Yugoslavs less so. Even Scotland and England are talking about a separation.
But in Brussels, which these days feels more the capital of the far-flung European Union than the capital of a medium-size European nation, polite Belgian politicians don't like the D-word. They wish the whole issue would just go away.
It won't. That much became clear in December when RTBF, the French-language state broadcaster, interrupted its regular programming with an urgent bulletin announcing that Flanders had declared independence.
Grainy footage showed King Albert II and Queen Paola heading for the airport to flee the country. There also was video of trams stopped at the new Flemish border, and live interviews with familiar politicians discussing the crisis.
Not until half an hour into the broadcast did the message "This is fiction" appear on the screen. Too late. Embassies in Brussels already had scrambled to seek clarification while thousands of worried callers jammed RTBF's switchboard…
Belgian politicians were not amused.
Mind you, this was back in 2007 before it had become well established that the Scots could vote on their own Independence, and before the British voted for Brexit.
These more recent developments make regionalist movements such as those in Spain, Italy, and Belgium of increasing notability.
The question remains, however, if nation-states lacking the Anglo-Saxon deference to electoral politics will be as tolerant of election outcomes as the British appear to be.
The Democracy Problem
At the core of all these issues remains an unanswered question: If a majority of voters in a region vote for independence or greater autonomy, will the vote be respected by the central government?
After all, European nation-states have for decades been lecturing the rest of the world about the wonderfulness of democracy and how "the will of the people" must prevail. At the national level, it is simply assumed that "the will of the majority" is what grants a state a "right" to rule over the citizenry.
But if a majority in a specific region votes for a divorce from the central government, is all this talk about democracy and the will of the majority to suddenly be ignored?
Ludwig von Mises, of course, in his book Liberalism, advocated for the idea that any region, right down to the village level, be allowed to gain independence based on the outcome of a freely held plebiscite.
In recent years, opponents of independence movements in Italy and Spain have bickered over the way these votes are being conducted, and over the extent to which a majority actually wants indepenence.
These arguments are good at buying time, but they conveniently ignore the central problem at hand: if Catalonia held a fair-and-square election, and, say, 75 percent of eligible voters opted for independence, would the Spanish government allow independence? What about a similar situation in northern Italy? It's a yes-or-no question, but it doesn't seem to be one either the Spanish or Italian government is willing to answer.
Thus, Europe's democracy problem persists. Is democracy only allowed when it is no threat to the established status quo for nation-states? Should the central government send in the troops to beat citizens and seize ballots when people vote "the wrong way"?
This isn't just a problem for Europe, of course. Most of the "democratic" world, including Europe and the Americas, has a similar problem.
Old Borders Have Outlived their Usefulness
As time goes on, though, it's going to be harder and harder for nation-states to defend the current configuration of their national borders.
The current model of nation-states is based on the idea that a single metropolis, or a group of them, can control surrounding rural frontier areas for reasons of military strategy and to ensure a food supply for the metropolis. In return, the wealthy metropolis will protect frontier areas from foreign invasions, and provide some semblance of order to far-flung regions lacking the wealth and power of the metropolis.
This system of nation-states began to take firm shape in the seventeenth century, and was finally solidified in the nineteenth. The world wars of the 20th century showed us the heights to which nation-states can reach, and the extent to which they can seize and control resources.
This old model, however, was initially based on the idea that populations would be largely agricultural and rural, and that personal, cultural, and economic networks would be focused around the nation-states themselves, and the people within them.
As time has gone on, though, urbanization, international trade, and international communications have grown far beyond what the national governments of old could have ever imagined. Capital cities in nation states no longer command the attention and economic focus of other powerful cities within their nation states, and trade with foreign populations has in many cases become more important that trade within one's own nation-state. Agriculture is no longer a key source of wealth, which makes city-states with only small rural hinterlands increasingly viable.
At the same time, these newly forced international connections reduce the importance of the old nation-states as "protectors" from the neighboring regions. After all, if trade with the foreigners next door is just as important as trade with one's own countrymen, it becomes increasingly difficult to see what one's national government is offering protection from.
Does northern Italy really need protection from Austrian or Swiss invaders? Does Flanders need protection from the Netherlands? In an age of thorough economic integration, a war between two European states would mostly be a matter of mutually-assured economic destruction.
Nevertheless, the force of habit is an important factor in political ideology. Many people continue to see their national borders as quasi-sacred, reacting with horror at the idea that their nation-state should be "dismembered." National governments are careful to downplay the fact that the borders of most modern nation-states barely reach back as far as the nineteenth century. Even a look at a map of Europe from 1945 should disabuse us of any notion that national boundaries are anything but temporary.
In fact, border changes can often be measured in lengths of time similar to those of a single human lifetime. But this doesn't stop commentators from declaring that such-and-such region or such-and-such state (i.e., California) will never secede or dramatically change its national status.
In politics, claims of "never" should always be treated as laughably naive. 100 years is quite long enough to completely change the map of the world.