Separatism: A ‘virus’ spreading across Europe?

Anyone following international news is likely to be aware of the recent independence referendums that have taken place amongst the Kurds in Iraq and the Catalans in Spain. Both groups voted overwhelmingly for greater autonomy in their regions, and are now fighting to implement these decisions against the opposition of the central government.  However, far fewer people are likely to have heard of less dramatic and highly publicised independence movements across Europe, concerning areas ranging in size from small townships to entire regions. While many of these independence movements may seem insignificant, inconsequential and unlikely to succeed, they lend credence to Enrico Letta’s statement that the Catalonia referendum could cause a ‘virus’ of such movements to spread across Europe.

Catalans seeking independence /

One such revolt, which would have seemed extremely unlikely and would have received little attention before the Catalonia referendum, is taking place on the Canvey Island, an island just off the coast of mainland Britain. While the 40,000 islanders do not actually want to secede from Britain, their frustrations over being governed by the council on the mainland and their demands for greater autonomy are strikingly similar to those of the Catalans. Dave Blackwell, a Canvey Island Independent Party councillor even said, in an interview with the Times, that it is his party’s view that they need our own voice to determine our own future even if that means we have to break away”. While the issue is not as serious or as pressing as that of Catalonia, there are talks of a petition and a possible referendum, with Blackwell stating that he is confident that “100% would vote to leave” due to the local feeling that they are treated as “second class citizens”. His belief seems to be backed up by the fact that Canvey Island was one of the areas of the country that voted overwhelmingly to leave the EU during the Brexit referendum, which would indicate that there is significant support for the concept of greater autonomy. In the grand scheme of European politics, this possible movement is unimportant – it will have little effect on Britain’s integrity, let alone Europe’s. However, it shows just how deeply the ideas behind the larger separatist movements have penetrated society, to the point where even a small island with no economy to speak of views separatism as a viable strategy.  

Further north in the Britain, the referendum in Catalonia has also reopened the independence discussion in Scotland, which held its own legal referendum in 2015 when 55% of Scottish voters chose to remain a part of the United Kingdom rather than becoming an independent Scottish nation. The referendum campaign was closely fought, and there has been discussion of a second independence referendum ever since the first concluded. The First Minister and leader of the Scottish Nationalist Party, Nicola Sturgeon said of the referendum that she felt that strong feelings in Scotland, like Catalonia could ‘not be ignored’. It seems as if this development, along with the United Kingdom’s progression through the process of exiting the European Union, could spark Scottish nationalist sentiments once more. Also in Europe, Italy is struggling with its own separatist movements, with voters in both Veneto and Lombardy, two prosperous regions in the north of the country, voting 95% in favour of greater autonomy from Rome in a non-binding referendum on the 22nd October. While these referendums did not call for outright independence from Rome, they are still significant as they represent a growing trend towards economically successful regions of a nation calling for greater independence and autonomy. In many of the cases discussed this is due to a feeling that the region is subsidising the rest of the country while being treated like second class citizens.

Independence protestors in Scotland /

The residents of Catalonia, Canvey, Scotland, Veneto and Lombardy may seem on the surface to have very little in common. However, they all share the desire to enhance the prospects of the areas they call home by returning decision making to the local level, rather than allowing politicians in distant capital cities to make decisions on their behalf. They are united by the genuine belief that they would be better off if this was allowed to happen, and appear to simply wish for an opportunity to carry this out. This kind of sentiment was exactly what led many in the UK to support the historic decision to leave the European Union, and it seems as if it has not yet run its course in Europe.

Whatever your feelings concerning the idea of self-determination and the proliferation of autonomous regions throughout the world, people across Europe, just like those in Catalonia, seem unwilling to give up on the idea. Virus or not, Letta was right to suggest that Catalonia’s referendum would have far reaching consequences across the region. At this crucial juncture for European politics, the Catalonian question appears to concern Europe as a whole just as much as it concerns Spain. As many have suggested, stable statehood is part of the foundation on which ‘Europe’s security rests’, and it is hard to tell what will happen if this is undermined.

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