Mohan Murti

Separatism in Europe

Mohan Murti | Updated on January 08, 2013 Published on January 08, 2013

The strategy of “Divide and Rule” was employed by imperial powers, not just within the Indian subcontinent. It was in Ireland where the English invented the tactic and ‘template’ of divide and conquer — with the Protestant invaders and the Catholic natives. Today, there is no discernible border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland and normally Europeans do not need a passport when driving, say, from Dublin to Belfast.

Once you cross the “border” into Northern Ireland, speed limits and distances are shown in miles, not in kilometres. And, you pay with the pound Sterling, not the Euro. All within a ninety-minute drive of each other. People look the same, all drinking a brew of roasted unmalted barley called ‘Guinness’, the burnt flavour stout beer. That said, symbolism has frequently inflamed sectarian passions in Northern Ireland. In a voted decision a month ago, the Belfast City Council decided to stop flying the Union Jack year-round. Hoards of protesters have been out in force — with sometimes violent results since last weekend. Why? The Protestants mainly want to stay in the United Kingdom and Catholics want to unite with the Republic of Ireland.

Although separatist movements in Europe have traditionally been based on ethnicity or religion, the credit crunch, debt crisis, unemployment and low growth rates are contributing to a new fangled resurgence.

Flanders Region of Belgium

At the forefront of a European breakaway trend, just as the EU celebrates winning the Nobel Peace Prize for fostering peace, is the historic world port and diamond cutting capital, Antwerp. Now, a separatist party that won a municipal election wants to use the city as a base for breaking away from Belgium. The desire by the Flanders region to acquire more autonomy has been a central issue in Belgian politics for some time.

However, I doubt Flanders will achieve independence. Belgium is the home of the European Union which is the engine for uniting the sovereign nations of Europe. It would be ironic if the country hosting the EU split apart because of linguistic, historical and cultural differences.

Nation within a Country - Catalonia

I have travelled to Barcelona, Spain, several times over the past two decades. The last time I was there a few weeks ago, I noticed the Catalans have become more overt in calling themselves a “nation within a country”. There were many Catalan flags and signs and my friends assure me that they are serious. Over the past several years, Catalonia has been an economic engine for Spain.

It is not just Catalonia that, as part of Spain, is willing and able to leave. The Basque region has been a barb in its side for many years, and I believe Galicia is holding its own referendum for independence. Unfortunately for Spain, it has handed over the reins of government to its autonomous regions and it will be very difficult to take them back. So, Spain has more than an economic crisis to deal with.

Lombardy Region of Italy

In Italy, the same arguments over why Milan should pay for Naples have kept the neo-separatist Northern League in business for years. There is a strong movement in the Lombardy region of Northern Italy which too is seeking to secede from Italy. It would become one of the wealthiest countries in Europe should it actually pull it off.

In South Tyrol, separatists are demanding that 90 per cent of tax revenue collected in the wealthy province be returned to the region.

The movement for the independence of Sicily is a separatist political movement, which proposes the independence of the island from Italy.

In Germany, there is no separatist movement but the prosperous states of Baden Wuertemberg and Bavaria have challenged, in court, a fiscal balancing system that makes them hand over some revenue to poorer federal states.

In Bretagne, a north-western French province, the Breton Revolutionary Army has operated since the early 1970s. The descendants of the Celts, who once came from the British Isles, do not identify themselves fully with the French, or consider themselves special among other French citizens.

Even petite Switzerland has its own separatists. In the canton of Jura, the Front for the Liberation of Jura has been demanding this canton’s independence from the confederation for over 30 years.

Europe’s separatists are increasingly working together, sharing tactics and drawing inspiration from each other. Even the once nomadic culture of reindeer herders — the ‘Saami’ – indigenous people inhabiting the Arctic area which today encompasses parts of far northern Sweden, Norway, Finland are looking for autonomy in Lapland!

(The author is former Europe Director, CII, and lives in Cologne, Germany.)

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Published on January 08, 2013
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This article is closed for comments.
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