Leading the way into a bright, new Europe


  By George Kerevan

ON MONDAY David Cameron signed a treaty with Alex Salmond allowing Holyrood to conduct its own referendum on Scottish independence in 2014. While Cameron’s spin doctors were busy telling everyone that he had put one over on the First Minister by securing agreement to a single question, the rest of Europe looked on in amazement.

Can you imagine Madrid allowing the Catalans to frame their own independence question? Tanks would roll first. The truth is Cameron had to concede the referendum to Holyrood out of weakness. In doing so he has created a precedent some European politicians fear – giving Europe’s stateless nations the right to determine their own fate. And they will.

On Sunday, Flemish nationalists represented by the NV-A party won the municipal elections in their part of Belgium. The charismatic NV-A leader, Bart De Wever, was elected mayor of Antwerp – akin to Alex Salmond personally defeating Labour on Glasgow City Council. De Wever immediately called for Home Rule for Flanders, the wealthy Dutch-speaking part of Belgium. Next year sees a general election at which the NV-A is expected to do even better.

In Catalonia, Spain’s wealthiest region, calls for independence have accelerated since 1.5 million people demonstrated on Catalan National Day in September. The leader of the Catalan equivalent of then SNP, Artur Mas, has called an election for November 25. Mas says he will use the election to seek a mandate to hold an independence referendum. Under Spanish law it is illegal for the Catalans to hold their own. Mas says he will take his case to the EU, citing the Scottish precedent.

How similar are the Scottish, Flemish and Catalan movements? The recent rise of nationalism in Flanders and Catalonia is clearly influenced by austerity. Both regions are the richest part of their respective national economies and feel they are suffering higher taxes and spending cuts to bail out central governments that failed to stop the financial bubble or the euro crisis.

True, Catalonia has had to seek a fiscal bailout from Madrid but this is not quite what it seems. Including emergency austerity taxes, Catalonia is forced to transfer the equivalent of over 8 per cent of its GDP to the rest of Spain. Without that requirement, Catalonia would have no debt problem.

Does Scotland fit into this anti-austerity revolt? So far, the answer is “not yet”. This summer, support for outright independence has slipped in Scotland. (Though demand for transferring all tax powers to Holyrood remains by far the most popular choice.) In Catalonia, on the other hand, 51 per cent of people now support independence. This represents a six-point rise in only four months. It is actually the first time that a majority of Catalans have called for a separate state.

However, the No campaign should not count their referendum chickens too soon. In both Flanders and Catalonia the nationalist tide has turned unexpectedly in the last year, provoked by a worsening economic situation. In the UK, Chancellor George Osborne is still rejecting calls for growth. If there is a lesson to be drawn from Europe, it is that nationalist sentiment will find a focus in economic grievance.

The threatened breakaways by Scots, Catalan and Flemish have also re-opened the vexed question of whether new nations would remain members of the EU, or have to re-apply (running the risk of being vetoed by existing members anxious to stifle more secessions). Different personalities in the European Commission have pronounced different verdicts at different times, because the EU constitutional treaty says nothing about the matter; and because international law is profoundly unclear on the issue of the rights of successor states that are not ex-colonies.

There is no consistent pattern in how such new states have been treated. Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia claimed they were not “new” states, but old ones taking back their sovereignty from Russia – an argument that was largely accepted, and a route Scotland is expected to follow. When Czechoslovakia became the Czech Republic and Slovakia, they very amicably argued they were both equal successor states and this was largely how they were treated. .

I dare say (for form’s sake) that Flanders, Catalonia and Scotland might have to apply for membership under Article 49 of the EU Treaty, but using an accelerated process that runs parallel with those nations negotiating the final details of separation from their mother states. Meantime they would remain de facto members of the EU (as they wouldn’t yet be “independent”). Besides, it is difficult to see how Brussels can throw the Flemish out of the EU when the EU capital is marooned deep inside Flanders.

Yet the rise of new small nations in Europe poses a deeper question about the EU: is the German-sponsored rush to full political union really going to happen? Berlin sees the way out of the euro crisis coming through fiscal and banking union, which in turn requires European political union. But the sudden outbreak of small nation fever suggests otherwise – that most Europeans want government closer to home.

It could well be that Flanders, Catalonia and Scotland (in return for EU membership) face calls to accept tough fiscal rules monitored by Berlin. Indeed, I can hear the No campaign telling Scots that if they vote for independence the EU will make them adopt the euro, wear black berets and carry strings of onions round their neck. It won’t happen.

The sight of 1.5 million cheerful Catalans demonstrating for national sovereignty against EU austerity tells me that the rise of “small nation” nationalism is the very antithesis of being told what to do by Berlin. A new Europe of the nations is being born, to replace the failed Europe of the bureaucrats and the bankers. Be they in Brussels, Madrid or London.

Courtesy of George Kerevan and the Scotsman newspaper