Clamour for independence grows in a crisis-hit Europe

From Flanders Fields and the Scottish glens to Barcelona and the Costa Brava, a clamour for independence is sweeping parts of Europe.

Supporters of independence for Catalonia demonstrate in Barcelona on September 11 to mark the Spanish region's official day, amid growing protests over Spain's financial crisis which has driven it to seek aid from the central government.
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LONDON // From Flanders Fields and the Scottish glens to Barcelona and the Costa Brava, a clamour for independence is sweeping parts of Europe.

Age-old nationalist fervour in regions aspiring to sovereign status has a new economic dimension as the euro crisis batters the single currency zone and its neighbours.

Recent attention has focused on the promise by the British prime minister, David Cameron, to grant Scotland a referendum on independence. But election results have also highlighted growing pressure for the break-up of Belgium and separation of northern regions from the Spanish state.

"I expect to see an independent Flanders in my lifetime," says Nadia Sminate, 30, a half-Moroccan Belgian parliamentarian who belongs to the right-wing, separatist N-VA party and has just been elected to serve as the country's first mayor of Maghrebin origin.

"Perhaps people are not ready for it yet and we don't want a revolution. But it will come by evolution, whether it takes 20 or 50 years."

Nor does it stop there. Many on the Mediterranean island of Corsica want freedom from French control, some backing their ambitions with violence. There is also movement for further changes in the volatile Balkans. For some European analysts, it would take just one successful pitch for independence to trigger a domino effect leading to the most radical boundary changes since the end of the Second World War.

"When you face problems, there is inevitably debate about how you get out of them, and in all three cases there is fierce debate on underlying economic issues and the effects of the euro crisis," said James Ker-Lindsay, a senior research fellow at the London School of Economics.

Scottish nationalists have said that they will keep the British pound pending transition to the euro, a position some observers expect to be challenged if the single currency's troubles persist.

But Mr Ker-Lindsay says an independent Scotland, and new states created by a Flemish split with Belgium's French-speaking Walloons or secession from Spain by the north-east region of Catalonia, would be "viable entities".

Mr Ker-Lindsay, whose main expertise is in the politics of the Balkans, fears success for any of the separatist causes would stir tensions in south-east Europe.

"We would be talking about Republika Srpska in Bosnia, Albanians in Macedonia, Serbs in north Kosovo and Bosnian Muslims in southern Serbia," he said.

"They'd want to know why if it was OK for others, it could not be for them, too." The Balkans have more recent experience of war but Spain, already experiencing disturbances as anti-austerity protests spill over into violence, is ripe for further civil unrest as Catalans and Basques push for independence. Nationalists took the highest number of seats in recent Basque elections and their counterparts in Catalonia, which includes Spain's second city Barcelona and boasts the country's biggest economy, are expected to fare even better in polling on November 25. The regional leader of Catalonia, Artur Mas, says he would then hold a referendum asking whether voters wanted independence. The Spanish premier, Mariano Rajoy, has threatened legal action to prevent such a vote.

But Jaume Clotet, a prominent Catalan journalist and author who estimates that 8 to 9 per cent of the region's GDP disappears into national coffers each year, said: "The question is not whether an independent Catalonia could be viable. Even the Spanish justice minister ... has said the problem is more that Spain would not be viable without Catalonia."

In Belgium, the Dutch-speaking Flemish population feels little in common with French-speaking Wallonia. Ms Sminate and her party (N-VA translates as New Flemish Alliance) campaign for gradual, peaceful secession while seeking more autonomy in the short term.

If N-VA is distinct from the far-right, anti-immigrant Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest), Ms Sminate's Arab background still makes her an unlikely candidate for a leading role in a European conservative party. But she says she believes in self-help: "My father came from Morocco at 19 and learned both French and Dutch, found a good job and made sure he integrated."

Ms Sminate rules out a union between Flanders and the Netherlands but describes the current make-up of Belgium, with incompatible languages and cultures, as "artificial". N-VA supporters believe that the financial crisis has heightened Wallonia's dependence on the more prosperous Flemish.

The Scottish referendum in 2014 will coincide with the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn, when Scottish forces registered a famous victory over the English. But Scottish nationalists may be overtaken by other European regions in the race towards independence.

Paul Cairney, a professor of politics at the Scottish University of Aberdeen, said that the evidence of opinion polls was that a No vote was most likely. No reliance could be placed on oil revenues, because of their fluctuating value and finite reserves, he added.

"For there to be a Yes vote, there would need to be an unpredictable series of events coming together at the right time."

Others, however, feel Europe's economic plight helps to make advances towards independence unstoppable. Mr Ker-Lindsay believes a decisive outcome to any region's quest for independence would prove crucial to the others.

"My feeling is if one becomes independent, the others would follow," he said. "But if one failed, say with the Scottish referendum producing a No vote, that would take the wind out the sails of other European nationalists."