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Seeing small in the age of European federalism

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Europe has been these last couple years at the forefront of world media. First, the Eurocrisis and its domestic impacts have been over studied and analyzed. Second, the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize to the EU creating an unfortunate outcry throughout Europe. Third, Western Europe has been plagued by a series of waves of independence. The rich region of Spain, Catalonia, the northern region of Belgium, the Flanders, and Scotland of the United Kingdom are all seeking for their independence. They all share two rationales: first, money; second, rich local culture – including language for Catalonia and the Flanders. In these times of Eurocrisis and European federalism, the temptation of “going small” for certain regions has increased. Popular and nationalist beliefs tend to argue that the Eurocrisis and its consequences can be alleviated by seeking sovereignty to their regions and leaving their respective nation-state.

In the 21st century wherein experts are talking of region-government along the lines of the EU model, the political trend of subregion-government is also taking place throughout the world. The belief that one can rule, govern, and protect better in a smaller geographical area shared by the ‘same’ people in terms of culture and identity is quite worrisome. How can one talk of multiculturalism in a world wherein mono-culturalism is so precious and is kicking back in? How can the EU promote a European identity when some of the regions of its Member States are in fact advocating narrowness of mind and limited cultural and ideational transformations?

Map of Europe locating key regions in which parties supporting independence are gaining ground. Includes population and economic data.

Credit: Reuters

In the case of Scotland, David Cameron signed a referendum deal on October 15, 2012 allowing the Scots to vote on their independence in autumn 2014 from the United Kingdom. One of the reasons for the Scots to seek for independence aside of politics consists in regaining the revenues from the

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oil production in the North Sea estimated at 11 billion euros per year. However, even if Scotland gains its independence, Mr. Salmond, the first minister in the Scottish parliament, confirmed his intension to seek for a currency union with the rest of the U.K. If there is one thing that the Eurocrisis should have shown to politicians and citizens is that a common currency comes with some benefits and inconvenient. Why seeking political autonomy but not a monetary one? Will the British agree with the creation of U.K. currency union? At what cost? And will it come with a common fiscal policy? In addition, Mr. Salmond has been secretly asking/negotiating about an eventual automatic membership of Scotland to the EU without following the regular process.

In the case of Catalonia, so far Madrid has blocked any desires of Catalan independence. Madrid’s strategy has been to emphasize those Catalan

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nationalists need to follow the Constitution, which claims that holding a referendum on independence is illegal. Interestingly Rachman of the Financial Times underlined that Cameron’s strategy to allow the Scots to hold a referendum on their independence, should be followed by the Rajoy government. It may certainly be a political risk with better outcomes that blocking any types of talk fueling nationalism and leading to possible disastrous consequences for Spain. Economically Catalonia produces about a fifth of Spain’s GDP estimated at 200 billion euros. Once again the Eurocrisis has been one of the main arguments in favor of independence.

The third case, Flanders, is not as discussed but should be since the victory on October 15 of the Flemish separatist candidate, Bart De Wever, at the local election. In the short run this election will not lead to an early break-up of Belgium, however, it will have some impact nationally. The gap between the two Belgiums is not only linguistic, but also economic. The region of the Flanders has a better economic situation with lower unemployment rates as opposed to the French speaking region of Wallonia. Many in Flanders feel that they have been subsidizing the French region. As illustrated in an article by Reuters, the

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University of Leuven calculated that the annual transfers between Flanders and Wallonia are about 16 billion euros. However, this number should be taken with a certain degree of cautions as others have instead reported of an amount of 6 billion euros. The prime minister has tried to minimize the outcomes by underlining that it is only a local election. Nevertheless, the separatists are the first political force of the North and they have finally captured the stage.

Interestingly Catalonia and Scotland have been considering joining the EU. It may very well be a matter of time for Flanders to discuss its European future. Let’s face it, how successful can these regions be in the international system and in this competitive global marketplace? If they feel that their cultures and identities are under threat by their respective national government, it will be interesting to see how they react once the global forces penetrate their borders.

Credit: Euronews

These three cases come at a bad time for the EU. What should be the position of the Commission on these separatist desires? And the EU? The question of breakaway region asking for EU membership is a problem as the “EU officials – lacking guidance from the EU treaty – have moved to wait-and-see mode.” Last but not least, and this is just pure speculation at this point. Let’s imagine that these three regions gain independence and seek to join the EU. It will be quite interesting to see how Belgium, Britain and Spain – all EU Member States – push for the enlargement of the EU by integrating their former regions. But there is another side to the coin, if Scotland, Flanders, and Catalonia do get their independence, who says that Spain, England, and Belgium should not reapply to the EU membership. A FT reader raised this very interesting point, entitled “Was club membership in the pre-nup?” and laid out four options: a) one has to leave; b) the second has to leave; c) both must leave; d) both can stay as long as their contributions is similar to the one before the divorce.

Divorce or not, this may certainly be another captivating chapter in the already tumultuous and unpredictable book of European integration.



Maxime H.A. Larivé
Maxime H.A. Larivé

Maxime Larivé holds a Ph.D. in International Relations and European Politics from the University of Miami (USA). He is currently working at the EU Center of Excellence at the University of Miami as a Research Associate. His research focus on the questions of the European Union, foreign policy analysis, security studies, and European security and defense policy. Maxime has published several articles in the Journal of European Security, Perceptions, and European Union Miami Analysis as well as World Politics Review.