Behind the flag-waving, there are hints of hesitation among Europe’s nationalists

Brave hearts – and minds? Andrew Milligan/PA Archive

Europe’s independence movements are on the march, so the story goes. From Glasgow to Barcelona the past two years have been dominated by speculation of how and when votes on pivotal constitutional change could take place.

Another milestone is reached today, when the deadline for public submissions on the Scottish Independence Referendum Bill arrives.

Officials in the Scottish parliament will pore through weighty documents parsing the language of the proposed legislation on the vote line-by-line. Of course the debate has already been playing out in public. We read for example, that the SNP government has received legal advice on EU membership, but won’t tell us what it is. We have also heard that overseas investment in an independent Scotland will soar, that monetary union is a no-no and (most recently) that 16 and 17-year-olds would vote against independence by a factor of about 60 per cent (so, about the same as all adults, then).

As in Catalonia the narrative being driven is one of need for constitutional change – often of the most dramatic type. And yet, behind the headlines, there are signs of hesitation emerging.

Demands for greater regional autonomy or the outright independence of territories belonging to EU member states are being pushed by multiple factors. Some are long-term and precede the current financial crisis. They include reactions to the intergovernmental shift in EU decision-making over the last decade, leaving regional actors (especially in richer regions) with the sense that Europeanisation has brought a de facto reversal of earlier devolution.

The demands also reflect the effects of earlier devolution — in Catalonia, for instance, the existence of a new generation more imbued with Catalan cultural influence is a result of regional educational policies privileging the Catalan language.

Independence movements love hardship?

The financial crisis has given greater impetus to independence movements, which have become adept at exploiting grievances over persistent austerity. Scottish nationalism has evolved from traditional cultural underpinnings to focus more on socio-economic demands.

Secession with style: Catalonia worries about amount of tax it pays to Spain. Kippelboy via Creative Commons

Catalonia, with a huge regional debt problem and one million out of Spain’s six million unemployed, has come to resent financial transfers to other parts of Spain. It observes how the Basque provinces, enjoying their own tax-raising powers, are weathering the recession far better. Catalan nationalism is also fed now by de facto recentralisation arising from Madrid’s policy impositions in response to pressure from the EU and financial markets to meet debt and deficit targets.

In Catalonia a majority of local political forces are demanding a “right to decide” – though this has been rejected by the Spanish government as unconstitutional. If Belgium is attracting less coverage, it is possibly in part because the New Flemish Alliance, triumphant in recent elections, sees independence for Flanders as coming later, following a transition from federalism to confederalism.

Belgium: Flemish independence a gradual process. Anton Rath via Creative Commons

All these cases involve demands for new state structures, whether they spell actual independence or not. They face strong opposition both from state capitals and from poorer regions that would lose out if wealthier regions became independent or showed them less solidarity.

What are the prospects of these movements? Much of the conversation so far has been about public opinion, cost-benefit economic outcomes, the disruption to EU membership for seceding territories and the terms of separation. While the declarations of leading politicians have captured the headlines, there has been little analysis of the so-called “secessionist” movements themselves. Apart from having negative undertones, this term itself is a misnomer.

Not so long ago, some within the Scottish Nationalist Party were considering enhanced autonomy alongside the alternative of independence. Even now a defeat (as seems likely) in the referendum will leave “devo-max” on the agenda. Similarly, Convergence and Unity (CiU), led by Catalan prime minister Artur Mas, was pushing for a fiscal pact with Madrid, seeking a comparable status to that of the Basques.

Unionists will look to hammer in a wedge

It has been in the interests of London and Madrid to reposition relations around the demands for independence, knowing that the movements they face are hybrid alliances whose coherence could be undermined if forced to fully define their positions on separation.

In the case of Catalonia, the movement for a referendum on independence is actually an alliance including supporters of federalism, confederalism and independence. Mainstream nationalist parties in Spain are composed of internal currents favouring either autonomy or independence. CiU itself is an alliance of two parties with different orientations and priorities. What unites the strands is the sovereign “right to decide” which nationalist parties have successfully advanced as a democratic demand.

Pragmatic: Basque Nationalist Party not as extreme as ETA. Jaume Meneses vai Creative Commons

It has gained resonance because successive attempts to improve Catalonia’s standing within Spain, through enhancement of its autonomy statute and a fiscal pact, were ultimately thwarted by central government and the Constitutional Court. This explains the current Catalan paradox: a majority of Catalonia’s electorate say they would vote for independence in a referendum, yet support for independence is still a minority preference (albeit the largest) when Catalans are asked about different models of state configuration.

While Catalan nationalist leaders look to the Cameron/Salmond “Edinburgh agreement” on the Scottish referendum as an ideal way to resolve the national question, the pluralism revealed by poll findings points to a risk of deep internal division if independence is attempted without an adequate consensus.

Moreover CiU risks losing its hegemony over the nationalist movement to more radical forces such as the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) whose influence is already alarming the regional business community. Concern about being outflanked by radical separatists is one reason why the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) is currently more pragmatic than CiU.

Faced with these complexities, nationalist parties themselves may be tempted to consider whether regional enhancements based on confederal ideas might have more to offer than outright independence. Confederalism may have some potential in countries such as Belgium but in Spain it would face as many obstacles as a bid for independence.