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Europe / Independence Movements

Nationalism and the Future of the European Union

Several months ago, the people of Scotland voted rather narrowly (about 55%-45%) to remain a part of the United Kingdom. On the surface, this seems like it should have been a massive blow to the Scottish National Party (SNP), who championed the referendum. After all, Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond did resign in the days after the failed independence bid. Instead of collapsing, however, the SNP is poised to have their most successful national election in their history this May (Salmond himself is standing for election and may take a seat in Westminster himself). TheLabour Party, which has traditionally held most of Scotland’s seats in Westminster, is falling drastically in the polls – so much so that Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron quipped that “an opinion poll in Scotland showed that more people believe in the Loch Ness monster than believe in [Ed Milliband, Labour Party Leader’s] leadership.” With this electoral earthquake looming on the horizon,  it seems like the debate on what Scotland should be – a constituent nation of the UK, a federated “state,” or an independent nation – is only just beginning.

Catalonia, a prosperous region of Northeastern Spain with a wealthy population and a unique language, has also been deliberating on a controversial bid for independence. Last November, around 80% of participating voters voted for independence (although turnout was only around 40%, much less than the nearly 85% recorded in Scotland). The main reason for the much lower turnout was that, unlike in the Scottish case, the larger national government did not agree to respect the results. Spain’s Constitutional Court declared a Catalan independence referendum Illegal, and so it went ahead to merely assess popular opinion without a serious chance of leading to independence. The Catalan independence coalition has not let up, with their leader Artur Mas calling for a new parliamentary election at the end of this year, one year early. Tensions continue to heat up and there is infighting among pro-independence parties, but nonetheless conflict still exists between the Catalan regional government and the Spanish Federation.

These two cases both saw failed independence bids at the end of last year, but the UK and Spain are not out of the woods yet. And neither is the European Union at large: both of these cases would have been a first for the European Union, with no precedent set on how member splits would be handled. In the Scottish case, questions about maintaining the Pound, switching to the Euro, or even returning to the Scottish Pound remain unanswered. The uncertainty leading up to the referendum took a toll on London’s enormously important financial sector as institutions shifted assets to safer markets. And although no new Scottish referendum is likely to come in the next few years, devolution promises have already been broken and the Scottish Nationalists are stronger than ever. As they prepare to seat numerous new Members of Parliament (MPs) in Westminster, Britain will almost certainly face a coalition government in the next cycle with no one party being strong enough to control Parliament.

The European Union currently faces a myriad of problems. The European currency and economy have faced a slower recovery than their American counterparts, and some countries are contemplating exits. The Greek debt crisis is still not resolved as the German government refuses to lend them more money. The new Liberal Greek government may push them towards an exit from the Euro. Facing criticism from the Euro-skeptical right, the Conservative party in Britain is currently promising a British Exit referendum (known as the “Brexit”) in 2017 and even the generally pro-Europe Labour party is allowing for the possibility of a referendum. Scotland is the most pro-EU part of the UK, so this controversy has further strengthened the pro-Europe SNP.

Nationalist efforts in small European nations present a genuine risk for destabilization. As several British firms have shown, companies are often leery of how these border changes may change the regulatory landscape in ways they can’t predict. The financial security of Europe is under pressure from multiple fronts – lingering Greek debt problems, uncertainty from the British banks, a changing relationship with Russia (which poses a threat to the European gas supply) and the potential infighting that may result from new countries emerging from old ones all pose a risk to the long term stability of the consolidated European Union. Spain in particular would likely to attempt to block Catalan accession to the European Union were the country to secede (the Spanish Government is so leery of this possibility that they refuse to even recognize Kosovar independence), leading to controversy as existing trade and population sharing deals were threatened. A Scottish exit could severely weaken to British financial market, the strongest in Europe, while presenting the same awkward questions about “rejoining” the EU. Furthermore, the loss of Scotland from the UK would mean that the most pro-Europe part of the country would be gone – likely increasing the chance of a “Brexit.”

Scotland and Catalonia may both remain parts of their mother nations today, but their nationalists have far from given up. In the uncertain political and economic landscape of Europe, these two small nations still have the potential to radically shake up the state of the European Union. Many have argued that Europe’s small “autonomous regions” could better govern themselves independently of their current overlords, but only time will tell whether or not they will, and whether or not such changes could break the wavering resolve of Europe’s great experiment.