What now for independence movements in Europe?

Written by Nicholas Barrett on . Posted in Current features, Features, Uncategorized

The referendum on Scottish independence was an unprecedented event in British history. Many had hoped that a ‘no’ vote would settle the country’s status and allow it to move on with its political and cultural identity intact. But this hasn’t happened. Instead, membership of Scottish National Party (SNP) has tripled since the vote, with added autonomy promised to the disenfranchised, while south of the border calls for an English equivalent to the Scottish parliament have thrown Westminster into a constitutional quagmire. So how might this affect the futures of nations and regions across the rest of Europe?

Professor Carlos Closa Montero, the Director of the research area ‘European, Transnational and Global Governance’, considers the poll as a major dent in the ambition of similar movements within the EU. Speaking to EUI Times he said, “They have been deprived of a highly valuable precedent on which to build their own claims for independence.” Now only would a Scottish nation state have made independence elsewhere easier to imagine in the minds of the electorate, but it also would have led the way in creating a 21st century legal, constitutional and political prescient for other potential young nations. Instead of this, the Scottish referendum has reaffirmed the strength and popularity of the status quo and acted as a paragon of measured mass caution.

And yet an added sense of empowerment is hard to deny.

It was clear the September vote would be anything but definitive when an opinion poll, published days before the referendum, indicated a victory for the ‘yes’ camp, sending Westminster’s political elite into a panic and forcing them to hastily promise a plethora of newly devolved powers in the hope of dodging a disastrous divorce. In the end, the ‘no’ camp prevailed with 55% of the vote; hardly a reassuring mandate for a United Kingdom. Despite their defeat, such a high number of voters in favour of independence would have been unthinkable a decade ago. Naturally, the global economic crisis has disturbed the accepted equilibriums of what constitutes political possibility but other political factors have also worked to undermine the appeal staying with the larger nation state, not least the prominence of the EU.

Professor Carlos Closa Montero

Professor Carlos Closa Montero

Closa notes that “Pro-independence movements across the EU assume that their territories will remain a member of the (European) Union and this proves how the EU has transformed their perceptions.” Could it be that the European Union has made secession more attractive by acting as an umbrella of economic and political security? And if so, has it reduced the significance of establishing a nation state? It’s a view shared by Stefano Bartolini Peter Mair Chair in Comparative Politics at the EUI. Speaking to EUI Times after the referendum he explained that “If territory and people stay together, they stay together on the basis of three forcfes.”

The first factor Bartolini cites is violence, possibly history’s oldest deterrent, “you want to leave this room and I won’t let you.” In modern Europe this concept is losing its significance. ETA and the IRA have all but ceased operations and all out wars of independence now seem to be confined to the developing world.

The second factor is identity, what Bartolini refers to as “a common destiny”, which may be harder thing to pin down in a relatively secular and pragmatic continent like Europe. The economic and social experience of living in Scotland is becoming increasingly different from that of living in London and the south. A cultural and economic gap is widening between the prosperous south and the post-industrial northern regions of Britain. For those living in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, not being English has always been a key factor of cultural identity, but there are also many regions in England suffering due to the profound economic disparities between London and the rest of the country. “Violence is no longer a dominant dimension of politics in Europe; we’ve never had such a long period of peace. Then there remains identity and interest. But identities exist ad infinitum.”

Professor Stefano Bartolini

Professor Stefano Bartolini

Bartolini’s third uniting factor is that of symbiotic relationships that develop between regions making their union mutually beneficial. What he describes as “an agreement involving a convenient exchange,” which would make a country staying together a matter of economic pragmatism. Questions of identity can be considered as mere vanity if they come at a high cost and it was London’s threat to exclude a new Scottish state from using the pound that resonated more strongly than any other pro-unionist argument. The ‘better together’ advocate Alistair Darling repeatedly exploited this element of uncertainly, which he knew would worry the electorate. In a televised debate he told the leader of the SNP that “an eight-year-old can tell you what Scotland’s capital and flag is. But you can’t tell us what Scotland’s currency will be.” And while he was often criticised for running ‘’a negative campaign” it ultimately proved to be a highly effective winning strategy.

So if, as a region, you decide to stay together, “you’re either forced, you are identifying yourself or you have a convenient deal,” concludes Bartolini

The Eurozone crisis may have undermined the appeal of independence within the EU and besides, Scotland were told that if they voted ‘yes’, they would be leaving the EU as well as leaving the UK and that they would have to reapply for membership as a new country.

So what is the remaining appeal of gaining independence?  From an economic perspective, the initial leap of faith is one into a world of total uncertainty, but once a small state or autonomous area is established, with its own powers and a clearer identity, it could arguably attract more foreign interest then it could have as region. As Bartolini explains, “how can I make sure there is Japanese investment in my region? I can make very appealing conditions for Japanese investment and I do this with some kind of independence or autonomy.” Elements like a flag, a capital and a parliament can put a country like Scotland miles ahead (in areas such as investment and tourism) of an English region like Yorkshire, despite having a similar sized population. It is easy to imagine that many other regions across Europe may seek to build up their international profile via the use of identity politics.

The Scottish independence questions don’t seem have reached any kind of closure and Bartolini believes it could soon be on top of the agenda again. The British government is currently planning to hold another referendum, this time asking the whole of the UK if it still wishes to be a member state of the EU. Many believe the referendum has been triggered by the exponential popularity of the heavily eurosceptic UK Independence Party, (UKIP) who is challenging the governing Conservative Party for parliamentary seats in England. North of the boarder, in Scotland, there is only one seat held by a Conservative MP and hardly any appetite for leaving the EU. “It would be sad” insists Bartolini “if the United Kingdom left the European Union because of an overwhelming ‘no’ in England and in spite of an overwhelming ‘yes’ in Scotland.” This scenario is becoming increasingly easier to envision as the electoral successes of UKIP continues to steer the political debate in London. “So now there is this double game. Now the question can no longer be posed ‘Great Britain – in or out’. The British have found themselves, for good or bad, divided into two communities.” If English votes drag Scotland out of the EU against their will, the situation could be used as a political mandate for another referendum. The United Kingdom may soon face yet another existential crisis in a new and chaotic age of European territorial wrangling.