Scottish independence: Europeans with an eye on Edinburgh

Catalan flag Image copyright AFP
Image caption A pro-independence demonstration in Barcelona in September 2012 attracted more than a million people

Voters will go to the polls in September to decide whether Scotland should become an independent country. But what other Europeans are pressing for independence and how closely are they watching Scotland?

1. Catalonia

The Catalan regional authorities have a long history of fighting the central authorities for greater autonomy, with many Catalans believing their language, culture and identity cannot be properly represented in Spain.

The region in north-east Spain already enjoys a wide degree of autonomy, and, until recently, few Catalans wanted full independence. But Spain's economic crisis has seen a surge in support for separation as many believe the affluent region pays more to Madrid than it gets back.

At the same time, the political base of support for Catalan self-determination has broadened from its traditional preserve of the left and been embraced by the centre-right.

The Catalan government plans to hold a referendum on independence on 9 November 2014, asking voters if they want Catalonia to be a state, and if they want it to be an independent state.

Spanish MPs overwhelmingly rejected a request to hold the referendum earlier this year, with Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy declaring it "illegal".

Recent opinion polls suggest people in Catalonia are evenly divided over independence.

Jose Ignacio Torreblanca, a columnist for Spanish newspaper El Pais, says people are keeping an eye on Scotland.

He says: "Whether they vote yes or no doesn't really matter - the fact a referendum has been granted and is going ahead is seen as hugely significant.

"What remains to be seen is whether the Catalan government will merely use the threat of a referendum as a tactical tool - or whether they will go through with it, which would mean facing sanctions from Madrid."

It is also worth noting that, in comments widely seen as a warning to Catalan separatists, Mr Rajoy said that Scotland would have to apply to become a member of the EU from the outside. This was interpreted in some quarters as a suggestion that Spain might veto such a move. The Scottish government argues Scotland could remain in the EU as it is already a member as part of the UK.

Image copyright AFP PHOTO / RAFA RIVAS
Image caption A protest calling for a referendum on Basque self-determination in the village of Mondragon, northern Spain

2. Basque

Spain's Basque country already has a large degree of autonomy. Like Catalonia, it won more devolved powers - it has its own parliament, police force, controls education and collects its own taxes - in the 1970s.

The argument for Basque independence relies on its distinct identity and language - which was suppressed under Spanish dictator Gen Franco. Many Basque nationalists also believe the country's borders extend into southern France.

The Basque Parliament has lobbied Madrid for a referendum on independence repeatedly over the past 15 years, but the Spanish government has consistently rejected appeals for such a poll.

Inigo Gurruchaga, a journalist at El Correo, one of the main papers in the region, says the Basque question has historically been more sensitive than Catalonia because of its association with the violent separatist group Eta.

Eta - which was formed more than 50 years ago to fight for an independent Basque homeland - declared a definitive end to hostilities in 2011. But the Spanish government insists the group must disarm.

"Basque nationalists are now biding their time, watching and waiting to see what happens with the Catalan referendum," says Gurruchaga.

They're also watching to see what happens in Scotland. "I'm constantly being asked to write articles on Scottish independence," he adds.

Image copyright AFP / DIRK WAEM
Image caption Belgium's answer to Nigel Farage? New Flemish Alliance leader Bart de Wever

3. Flanders

Potential for a breakaway state from Belgium lies in Flanders, the Dutch-speaking northern part of the country, where there have been calls for greater Flemish autonomy from Wallonia, the French-speaking southern half.

In the past, Flemish leaders have said they only want to reform the Belgian state, not dismantle it. The number of Flemish voters that want independence has stayed pretty constant - at about 10%.

However, the New Flemish Alliance party (NVA), which has 20% of the federal government seats, has an independent Flanders in its manifesto.

"The NVA has recently moved away from overtly campaigning for secession in order to concentrate on social and economic issues, but separatism is still in the party's statute," says Dave Sinardet, a professor of politics at the Free University of Brussels.

Flanders tends to lean right politically, whereas Wallonia tends to lean left, which the NVA says makes it hard for right-wing parties to govern at a national level.

As Prof Sinardet points out, it's a strikingly similar case to that made by many proponents of Scottish independence about the tension between Scottish and English voting preferences.

The NVA also has a lot in common with a very different British phenomenon - UKIP - in terms of what Prof Sinardet calls the "charismatic, man-of-the-people" leadership of Bart de Wever and his party's tough stance on immigration.

He says there's "very limited" awareness of the Scottish referendum in Belgium in general but political parties such as the NVA are "likely to be paying closer attention".

Image copyright AFP / TIZIANA FABI
Image caption Northern League supporters fly the flag representing Padania at the party's annual meeting in 2011

4. Padania

Separatists in the north of Italy have long called for an independent state made up of several of the country's wealthiest and most populous northern regions, sometimes referred to collectively as Padania.

Economic imbalance is key to demand for northern self-rule, since many in the north see themselves as "exploited" - not getting back what they pay in taxes, and (as they see it) subsidising the poorer south.

The movement has found political expression in the form of the Northern League (NL), which is famous for its stridently anti-immigrant rhetoric, and reached its highest levels of support in 1996 and in 2008. The party's votes in parliament were crucial to the coalition led by Silvio Berlusconi's People of Freedom Party (PdL).

The NL's main appeal was its drive for more devolved control over taxation and its ability to channel discontent against the central state, according to Dr Arianna Giovannini, a co-convenor of the UK Political Studies Association's Italian politics specialist group.

But she argues a failure to follow through on this proposal when it was in government damaged its standing with voters, who then felt neither the traditional centre-right nor the NL could meet their needs.

The party's decline in popularity was demonstrated in the 2013 general election, when it only managed to get 4% of the votes.

Giovannini says in the NL's heyday in the mid-1990s it often pointed to Scotland and used the English word "devolution" to illustrate the case for more regional powers, although awareness of the Scottish referendum is not at present particularly widespread.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Will Rome respond to calls for Venetian independence?

5. Veneto

The Veneto - a northern region of which Venice is the capital - has its own distinct movement for independence.

It is born out of a similar sense of economic dissatisfaction to the wider northern movement, says Matteo Nicolini, assistant professor of public law at Verona University.

This dissatisfaction has gathered new political momentum since 2010, when the Northern League (NL) was in decline at a national level, but still held ground in Veneto.

In March a coalition of "Venetists", including president of the Veneto regional government, Luca Zaia, came together under the name of Veneto Indipendente to set up a referendum on independence.

People could vote online, via telephone or at polling stations improvised in town squares. The organisers declared "Yes" won with 89% of 2.5 million votes cast.

Nicolini says he finds it "strange" that the national government has not challenged the plebiscite, which he describes as "illegal" since it goes against Article Five of the Italian constitution: "The Italian Republic is one and indivisible."

Giovannini suggests that the next step for the Venetists will be to strengthen and professionalise their organisation - and this could determine whether Rome pays them more attention.

Scotland isn't really on their radar, Nicolini adds.

Image copyright AFP / FRED TANNEAU
Image caption Rule Bretagne?

6. Brittany

Brittany, in north-west France, has its own language, culture, cuisine and flag and has strong ties to other parts of Europe's Celtic fringe.

Although political nationalism is weak, efforts to assert a distinct Breton cultural identity enjoy broader support in the region.

Breton, a Celtic language that is close to Cornish and Welsh, was historically scorned as a "patois" of the working classes, but has enjoyed a mini-revival in recent years after decades of decline.

Politically, the case for Breton devolution is made by the Union Democratique Bretonne. Its main successes have been on the regional council of Brittany - though in 2012, Paul Molac was elected to the French National Assembly - the first Breton autonomist to take a national seat.

John Loughlin, professor of European politics at Cambridge University, says the creation of regional councils in the 1970 and 1980s, and increased tolerance towards linguistic plurality, were historically "relatively successful" in absorbing demands for Breton autonomy.

More recent signs from Paris indicate that the country is to become more centralised - not less - with President Hollande announcing plans to reduce the number of French regions from 22 to as few as 14. The proposal has been met with some hostility, particularly in Brittany.

Image caption The Moor's head of the Corsican flag, formerly blindfolded, is a symbol of Corsican nationalism

7. Corsica

Another challenge to French sovereignty has come from Corsica, a large island of about 330,000 people off the south-east coast of France.

Corsica has suffered more than 40 years of political violence involving separatist paramilitaries, with bombing campaigns from the mid-1970s often targeting police stations and administrative buildings. In 1998 France's top official on the island was assassinated.

Extra powers for Corsica were narrowly rejected in a 2003 referendum organised by the French government.

Political parties who have rejected the armed struggle include the Union of the Corsican People, which enjoys consistent modest levels of electoral success and currently has one MEP, Francois Alfonsi.

Dr Anwen Elias, a lecturer on European nationalism at Aberystwyth University, explains that support for Corsican independence is "quite low" but that numbers are difficult to come by since "even to carry out an opinion poll on this question is so controversial".

Asked if she thinks Corsicans are mindful of the Scottish referendum, she says that "all European nationalist movements are keeping a close eye on Scotland".

Image copyright AFP
Image caption The Szekler people are a group of ethnic Hungarians living in Transylvania and pushing for greater autonomy

8. Hungarians in Romania

There is a belief among many Hungarians that some western areas of what is now Romania are part of their historical homeland.

In the post-war Communist era, the Hungarian language was banned in some Romanian schools and the use of Hungarian place names was suppressed.

Protests in support of an ethnic Hungarian pastor triggered the 1989 Romanian revolution that toppled the autocratic Communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu.

Dr Erin Marie Saltman, a researcher of Hungarian politics for anti-extremism think tank the Quilliam Foundation, says that "since Ceausescu, the situation of Hungarians in Romania has been much better".

However, the transfer of Transylvania to Romania after World War One is often referred to by Hungarians as "the national tragedy".

"This idea is shared by Hungarians on both the right and liberal left, but over the past 10 years it has been politicised and used to drive up support particularly for right-wing and far-right parties," says Dr Saltman.

"You see the map of 'larger Hungary' everywhere - on bumper stickers, beer mats and tattoos," she adds.

In 2013, thousands of Hungarians demanding self-rule marched in Transylvania.

The centre-right Hungarian government is supportive of their aims, but the Romanian government opposes the idea on the grounds it might lead to the break-up of the Romanian state.

Dr Saltman says "not that many" in Hungary and Romania are aware of the Scottish referendum, but that could change if Scotland votes "Yes".

  • A referendum on whether Scotland should become independent is to take place
  • People resident in Scotland will be able to take part in the vote, answering the "yes/no" question: "Should Scotland be an independent country?"
  • The referendum will take place on Thursday 18 September, 2014
  • Go to the BBC's Scotland Decides page for analysis, background and explainers on the independence debate.

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