Don Murray: From Scotland to Catalonia, Europe's sovereignty-association moment

Spain's Catalonia is just the latest of Europe's would-be nations to test the independence waters, Don Murray writes. One thing these smaller entities have have in common is that they are suddenly richer than their parent nations.

The appetite for independence in Europe today, in small nations encased in larger countries, brings together the following: a long memory, a sense of grievance and a talent for overblown rhetoric.

Mayor Carles Puigdemont of Girona, in northern Catalonia, knitted all three into one sentence: "These elections are not just the most important of our lives, they're the most important of the past three centuries."

In that declaration, rhetoric and memory need little explanation. The sense of grievance takes us back to 1714 when, after a siege of 11 months, the forces of Philip V of Spain finally took Barcelona, Catalonia's treasure.

The region, the mayor believes, has been suffering ever since.

The mayor is also the president of the Assembly of Municipalities for Independence in Catalonia and the results of Sunday's regional elections are certain to have pleased him. 

For the first time, parties with a clear majority of seats in the Catalonian legislature are in favour of a referendum on Catalonian independence, something that is now expected within the next four years.

That's because Artur Mas, the leader of the biggest party in Catalonia, the nationalist but conservative Catalan Nationalist Coalition (CiU), suddenly reversed field this fall, calling early elections and promising just such a referendum, which he had previously opposed.

Follow the money

One reason for this change of course might be the Catalonian government's enormous debts coupled with Madrid's refusal this summer to agree to an economic bailout (while it was desperately applying its own national austerity measures).

Artur Mas, leader of the Catalan Nationalist Coalition, rallies supporters just prior to Sunday's vote. (Emilio Morenatti / Associated Press)

Another reason might be the huge march that brought up to one and a half million people into the streets of Catalonia on September 11, calling for independence. September 11 was the anniversary of the taking of Barcelona in 1714.

It wasn't, however, Mas and his party who "won" these elections. The CiU are actually projected to lose a few seats.

But the left-wing nationalists, the ERC, long in favour of a referendum, stand to double their seat total and become the second biggest party.

Catalan independence would seem to be moving forward, if crabwise.

Scotland and Flanders too

The forces of nationalism in Scotland and Flanders will now undoubtedly  proclaim that history is on the side of small nations.

In Edinburgh, the Scottish first minister, Alex Salmond — a man who has spent his political lifetime working towards independence —signed a deal last month with the British prime minister to hold an official referendum on independence in 2014. 

Meanwhile, in Antwerp, Bart De Wever and his party have taken the city hall.

Antwerp is Belgium's second city and De Wever is a Dutch-speaking Flemish separatist who wants to see the end of Belgium as it exists, to be replaced by a confederal state — two countries in all but name.

So powerful are the Flemish nationalists and De Wever that they were able to block the formation of a national government for a year and a half. 

With De Wever in power in Antwerp the shaky new Belgian government may not last much longer.

Revenge of the recently rich

One curious strand unites these movements. It might  be called the revenge of the recently rich.

Catalonia, a brutalized battlefield in the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s, now produces more than a fifth of the output of stuttering Spain, although it has just 17 per cent of the population.

Flanders was once the poor relation of Belgium; the mines and the money were in the French-speaking south. 

Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond and British Prime Minister David Cameron, in October, after signing their agreement allowing for a Scottish referendum on independence. (Associated Press)

Now the mines have closed, the French speakers are poorer, and the economy has moved north where the Dutch-speaking Flemish population is almost 60 per cent of the country and doesn't want to subsidize the south.

Even Scotland, though statistically poorer than England, sees itself as rich, oil-rich like Norway.

But Salmond and the nationalists complain they have been cheated for decades, that the North Sea oil money was siphoned directly to London.

Still, much divides these movements. While the Scottish will vote on their future, with approval from London, the Spanish constitution specifically prohibits secession referendums. 

Madrid has already intervened once to negate one such vote in the Basque country. And there is almost no talk of referendums in Flanders.

The problem is Brussels. It lies in Flanders but is overwhelmingly French-speaking.

More to the point, it is also the capital of the European Union, and its future is a conundrum the nationalists can't solve.

Good Europeans

Language is a spur to nationalism for both the Flemish and the Catalans. For decades both were treated as little more than peasant dialects by the reigning establishments in their countries.

Catalan was even outlawed as a language to be learned in school under the dictatorship of Franco.

In Scotland, meanwhile, there is a decided lack of linguistic friction: English is the language of both unionists and nationalists, which may help explain why, after almost six years in power, Alex Salmond and his troops have not been able push support for independence much past 35 per cent in the polls.

The leaders of these independence movements all see themselves as good Europeans, ready to increase and reinforce the European Union.

The problem for them, though, is that the leaders of the European Union don't see things the same way at all.

In the midst of economic crisis the breakup of component countries is not a problem Germany and France want to think about.

Brussels, in turn, has made it clear that any newly independent  nation would automatically find itself outside the Union and would have to apply to join.

And under the terms of the EU treaties, any member state could veto any new application.

When presented with that stark choice, polls show Catalans much more hesitant about independence.

As for Scotland, Alex Salmond woos the voters with the promise that they could have the Queen, the pound and Europe, too. Canadians may recall something similar; it was once called sovereignty-association in Quebec.

Breaking up peacefully can be done, of course. The Czechs and Slovaks did it 20 years ago and both countries later joined the European Union. 

But breaking up from the inside may be a far harder task to bring off.