by Ryan McMaken
Earlier this week, The New York Times noted that movements for greater local autonomy appear to be spreading throughout Europe. In some ways, the conflict in Catalonia is just the tip of the iceberg. The Times reports:
Coming on the heels of the Catalan vote, the Lombardy and Veneto referendums are yet another signal of the homegrown conflicts that persist in many of the European Union’s member states. Separatist movements are also simmering in Britain — where voters in Scotland rejected independence in a 2014 referendum but continue to debate the issue — as well as France, Germany, Belgium and Romania.
Like Catalonia — and unlike Scotland — the Lombardy and Veneto regions of Italy are among the wealthiest regions, and send enormous amounts of tax revenue to Rome. Italy’s southern regions, which are significantly poorer than northern Italy, have benefited from Northern wealth ever since Italians were all forced into a single nation-state in the late nineteenth century.
This has never been forgotten by Italians from Veneto, many of whom participated in a referendum in 2014 to declare Independence. Naturally, the Italian government in Rome declared the vote invalid. At the time, however, I interviewed one of the organizers Paolo Bernardini about the referendum. (See “Inside Venice’s Secession Movement.”) At the time, secessionists liek Bernardini appeared to be pursuing immediate and total independence from Rome, while remaining inside the EU:
A tiny majority of Veneto people are in favor both of the EU and of the Euro as a currency. So I envisage a little, rich state, playing a major economic and political role in the EU, a stabilizing role. It will interact naturally with other rich and similar states, Bavaria (still part of Germany), Austria, and the Netherlands. It will be a Finland in the Adriatic.
According to the Times piece, though, supporters of Northern independence have gone back to taking small steps, and realize — probably correctly — that there are numerous steps that must be taken between the status quo and total independence.
The new effort appears to be focused on conducting local plebescites demanding more local autonomy. This doesn’t conflict with the goal of eventual independence, of course, although it probably is an essential first step.
An region taking a gradualist approach is the Flemish-speaking region of northern Belgium, also known as Flanders. The Flanders situation has been noted in a multitude of media outlets looking to find “the next Catalonia.” CNBC reports:
Political groups such as the New Flemish Alliance, a nationalist, conservative group which is dominant in the Belgian parliament, advocate a gradual secession of Flanders from Belgium. Euronews reported that the party even hung a Catalan flag outside its headquarters recently in support of the Spanish separatist region. With elections in 2019, the issue of Flemish independence is not likely to disappear soon.
The Catalonia and Scotland situations have brought secession issues to the fore in the English-language media, but there’s nothing new about Belgium’s problem. The unlikely unions of French-speaking and Flemish-speaking regions date back to 1830 when northern regions of Belgium won independence from the Netherlands. The resulting union known as Belgium has never been a totally comfortable one, as noted in a 2007 Chicago Tribune article, which compared Beligum to an unhappy and tired married couple:
They stay together mainly out of habit, and also because it would be such a headache to break up the household and divide the communal property.
If you know a couple like this, then you will understand the Belgians.
Dutch-speaking Flanders and French-speaking Wallonia are trapped in a loveless marriage called Belgium.
In today’s Europe, divorce no longer carries the opprobrium it once did. The Czechoslovakians had a very amicable split in 1993. The Yugoslavs less so. Even Scotland and England are talking about a separation.
But in Brussels, which these days feels more the capital of the far-flung European Union than the capital of a medium-size European nation, polite Belgian politicians don’t like the D-word. They wish the whole issue would just go away.
It won’t. That much became clear in December when RTBF, the French-language state broadcaster, interrupted its regular programming with an urgent bulletin announcing that Flanders had declared independence.
Grainy footage showed King Albert II and Queen Paola heading for the airport to flee the country. There also was video of trams stopped at the new Flemish border, and live interviews with familiar politicians discussing the crisis.
Not until half an hour into the broadcast did the message “This is fiction” appear on the screen. Too late. Embassies in Brussels already had scrambled to seek clarification while thousands of worried callers jammed RTBF’s switchboard…
Belgian politicians were not amused.
Mind you, this was back in 2007 before it had become well established that the Scots could vote on their own Independence, and before the British voted for Brexit.
These more recent developments make regionalist movements such as those in Spain, Italy, and Belgium of increasing notability.
The question remains, however, if nation-states lacking the Anglo-Saxon deference to electoral politics will be as tolerant of election outcomes as the British appear to be.
The Democracy Problem
At the core of all these issues remains an unanswered question: If a majority of voters in a region vote for independence or greater autonomy, will the vote be respected by the central government?
After all, European nation-states have for decades been lecturing the rest of the world about the wonderfulness of democracy and how “the will of the people” must prevail. At the national level, it is simply assumed that “the will of the majority” is what grants a state a “right” to rule over the citizenry.
But if a majority in a specific region votes for a divorce from the central government, is all this talk about democracy and the will of the majority to suddenly be ignored?
Ludwig con Mises, of course, in his book Liberalism, advocated for the idea that any region, right down to the village level, be allowed to gain independence based on the outcome of a freely held plebiscite.