Separatism in Europe

Independence movements are on the rise in Europe. At the heart of this phenomenon is an ever-globalizing world, bringing with it inflows of foreigners and an outflow of traditional industries. Most of these movements have set aside violent measures in recent years, but there is no guarantee that will continue.

November 11, 2017 protest in Barcelona to free members of the Catalonia’s former government
Thousands of Catalonians demand freedom for members of the former Catalan government who were jailed after the 2017 independence referendum. © dpa

In a nutshell

  • Globalization and immigration are behind rising separatist sentiment in Europe
  • Nonviolence now seems to be the rule, but this could change quickly
  • Leaders should address the root causes of these movements, not dismiss them

One of the surprising results of Italy’s election earlier this month was a huge jump in support for the League – formerly known as the Northern League – to nearly 18 percent, from around 4 percent in 2013. In October 2017, the party’s leader, Matteo Salvini, said that the time had come for the League to progress from a regional movement to a national party, addressing all Italians.

The transformation was surprising. The Northern League had once campaigned on a separatist platform. The movement, born of regional identity politics and disdain for “lazy” southerners and the central authorities in Rome, had successfully transformed itself into an Italian nationalist party, euroskeptic and opposed to Muslim immigration.

This example of a separatist party evolving into one espousing national unity will probably remain an anomaly. Other independence movements in Western Europe are unlikely to follow its lead.

Catalonia’s deadlock

The separatist movement in Catalonia has undergone a complex evolution since its independence referendum on October 1, 2017. The vote was called by the Catalan Parliament, and supported by a diverse group of parties, including the center-right Together for Catalonia (Junts per Catalunya), the leftist Republican Left of Catalonia (known by its initials in Catalan as ERC) and the ultra-leftist Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP).

In areas that already have significant autonomy, nonviolence seems to be the rule.

The Constitutional Court of Spain ruled the referendum illegal, and Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy reacted by sending in the Civil Guard and National Police to stop the vote. Despite Madrid’s efforts, the referendum took place, with more than 92 percent voting in favor of independence (many opponents abstained). After the Catalan Parliament declared independence, Madrid suspended Catalonia’s autonomy, dismissed its government and called new elections. The Catalonia regional elections of December 21, 2017 granted a very slight majority to the pro-independence parties, causing paralysis.

In contrast to most other separatist movements in Europe, which typically oppose the European Union, the Catalan separatists want recognition from the EU, and even membership in the bloc. So far, both Brussels and the member governments have maintained solidarity with Madrid and refused to engage in dialogue with Barcelona.

It is hard to see how the Catalonia independence movement moves forward from here. Along with the deadlock in parliament, the pro-independence parties cannot agree on next steps, with the CUP calling for immediate separation from Spain, while its allies favor a gradual approach. There is also still no agreement on who should lead the regional government.

Degrees of separation

The ambiguity between autonomy and independence prevails among the main separatist movements in Europe, including some of the more persistent ones, like in the Basque region of Spain. The Basque Nationalist Party (EAJ-PNV), on the center-right of the political spectrum, has always denied connections with the militant Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA). Classified as a terrorist group by Spain, France, the EU, the United Kingdom and the United States, ETA accepted a cease-fire in 2011 that is still in effect. Significant fiscal privileges for the Basque country (greater than those granted to Catalonia) can help to explain the truce’s staying power.

Perhaps due to Spain’s protracted nation-building process, bringing together several previously independent entities, the list of regions that have gained some sort of autonomous status is long: Andalusia, Aragon, Aran, Asturias, the Balearic Islands, the Canary Islands, Cantabria, Castile and Leon, Extremadura, Galicia, Murcia, Navarre and Valencia. In some of these regions, claims to independence are more serious than others. Catalonia, the Basque Country and even Galicia have more legitimate claims, rooted in history, tradition and language.

People from South Tyrol protest for more autonomy, 1956 Independence movements Europe
People from South Tyrol protest on the streets of Vienna in 1956, demanding more autonomy. A 1971 treaty between Austria and Italy defused tensions. © dpa

The trend today is that these movements have transitioned from violence to participation in the political process. Such has been the case with the Basques and ETA in Spain, and in Ireland with the Irish Republican Army. There is no guarantee this will continue; in fact, the situation could change very quickly. But smart policies can avoid a return to violence.

One telling example is in Trentino-South Tyrol. Originally with an ethnically and linguistically German population, the region was, geographically, part of the Italian Peninsula. During the process of Italian unification, in 1866, there was an attempt to take the territory, which at the time was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Then, in 1918, with the defeat of the Central Powers after World War I and the dissolution of the Habsburg Empire, the region was annexed by Italy. Italian leader Benito Mussolini pushed hard for the “Italianization” of these regions and after World War II there was a surge of violence. In 1971, a new treaty between Italy and Austria stipulated international mediation for disputes in the region and gave it more autonomy. Tensions eased, and the violence fizzled out.

In areas that already have significant autonomy, nonviolence seems to be the rule: the Scottish independence movement has refrained from armed struggle, as have the Flemish of the New Flemish Alliance, which works for Flanders’ independence from Belgium within the constitutional framework.

The Corsica case

Corsica provides another European example in which forces for independence moved from violence to politics. In the 1960s, the island went through a rupture caused by the collapse of French Algeria. After Algeria gained independence, the French government relocated some of Algeria’s French settlers (the Pieds-Noirs) in Corsica, granting them special rights on lands in the island’s east. Their arrival and economic decline ignited a revival of separatism that, in the 1970s, led to the foundation of the National Liberation Front of Corsica (FLNC), an organization responsible for several bombings, armed attacks and killings of police officers.

Now, the Corsican nationalist parties – Femu a Corsica, led by Gilles Simeoni (which favors autonomy) and Corsica Libera of Jean-Guy Talamoni (which favors independence) – together hold a majority in the Corsican Assembly. Though the Corsican independence movement has been likened to Catalonia’s, French President Emmanuel Macron, in a recent visit to the island, was very adamant in his opposition to independence and in reaffirming France’s unity.

Root causes

The main causes for the recent rise in regional separatist movements throughout Europe are interconnected. The growth of Muslim immigration (mainly in the largest EU countries– France, Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom – but also in some of the Nordic and Benelux countries) is perceived as a threat to national identity, employment and security. Restricting such immigration has become a key political issue, fostering the growth of right-wing political movements. Globalization, with its tendency to move industries and jobs to lower-cost locations, especially in Asia, as well as competition from immigrants willing to work for lower wages, have made protectionism more appealing to Western Europeans.

For these movements, the EU is the bugbear promoting globalization and immigration.

For these movements, the EU – “Brussels” – is the bugbear promoting globalization and immigration. Governments in Central and Eastern European countries like Poland and Hungary, anchored in religious and nationalist values, have reacted strongly against the EU’s liberal, secular principles and favor much tougher immigration policies.

The question of separatism in sovereign states is, above all, the result of national and regional identities butting heads with larger, typically more globalized entities, perceived as distant, alien and oppressive. The movements are stronger when rooted in history, culture, language and popular support, like Catalonia’s, and weaker when they manipulate folkloric identity to gain more financial or political autonomy, with little intention of creating a new political community. Both will present a crucial challenge for Europe in the coming years.



There are two possible scenarios for the evolution of European separatist movements. In one, Brussels and the EU leaders do not respond adequately to calls for more autonomy or independence in various regions. Discontent and protests will continue to gain momentum, while separatists will notch up more electoral success, leading to confrontation at the local and national levels.

In the other, more likely scenario, a peaceful modus vivendi could be achieved if the mainstream political forces take a more balanced approach to separatist and autonomist aspirations. Under this scenario, governments would realize that such sentiments are an understandable reaction to the problems brought about by globalization and multiculturalism. Instead of disparaging these movements as radical, irrational or regressive overreactions, governments would deal with the root causes head-on.

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