Rising regionalism sours EU’s spirit of unity

By Cristina Font Source:Global Times Published: 2017/10/29 22:05:12

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT



On September 18, 2014, Scotland held a referendum to decide whether it should be an independent country. Despite the Scots' nationalism, the referendum returned a "no" with 55.3 percent votes; those in favor of secession only polled 44.7 percent. Participation was unusually high (84.6 percent) for such an exercise in Scotland. Why did the independence movement lose the battle?

Unlike Catalonia, the Westminster Parliament gave the Scottish people the right to hold a referendum. However, when they answered the question "Should Scotland be an independent country? Yes or No," what they were really answering was "Should Scotland be an independent country with THE specific package of conditions? Yes or No."

To stand up for independence is not a simple question. In fact, it always comes with a package of conditions. In the Scottish case, a victory for the "yes" would have implied losing the sterling pound as the national currency, but above all, it would have meant exit from the European Union. Now that Catalonia is battling for winning independence, the possibility of losing European Union membership is on the table as well. It seems that states intimidate their secessionist regions with the European card so that they do not continue with their claims.

Why is there a rise in regionalism nowadays? Actually, the Scottish and Catalan cases are among the well-known, but they are not the only ones. Many European countries have nationalist independence movements within their borders. Even the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Netherlands, Italy, Poland, Portugal, and Sweden have regional secessionist movements.

Michael Keating, chair in Scottish politics at the University of Aberdeen, explains that for the last 30 years, a firm connection has emerged between European integration and regional decentralization within member states. Europe provides both a new framework for their own project and a new arena for projecting the nation. For some, Europe provides the opportunity to become independent, with the EU securing access to markets, open borders and security. For others, it presents the opportunity to move altogether beyond the old nation-state model, to new forms of political authority and self-government. A higher level achieves integration; the weaker takes to the traditional nation-state concept.  

Regional secessionist movements have been inspired by the idea of post-sovereignty, a world in which sovereignty and power are shared at multiple levels. As Keating affirms, the idea is not completely new but in many ways recalls the pre-modern order of Europe before the consolidation of the nation state. It is not a coincidence that these ideas have survived in small nations surrounded by large and threatening neighbors. For instance, the United Kingdom was established with the union of four countries: Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England; and Spain was constituted by the union of different kingdoms: the Catalan-Aragonese and the Castile Kingdom. Hence, in a European context without threats, small stateless nations flourish persistently.

What implications does a stateless nation becoming a sovereign reality have for the European Union? Before the result of the Scottish referendum was out, Herman Van Rompuy, former president of the European Council, and Manuel Barroso, former president of the European Commission created a furore. Both warned that any separate region would be treated as a new country, to which the EU treaties would no longer apply. Also, it would have been "extremely difficult, if not impossible" for Scotland to re-enter the EU after independence, as several member states, including Spain, could veto Scottish membership in order to discourage their separatist regions.

However, the legal position taken by them was not based on European treaties. The Treaty of the European Union (TEU) does not mention that a separate region cannot be part of Europe. To ensure that both Scotland and Catalonia could not be part of Europe is as absurd as to say their acceptance would be quick and painless. In the European arena, there is no precedent for the dissolution of a member state and its replacement by two new states. Neither the treaties contemplate a scenario for re-entering new third parties. Nevertheless, if the EU finds ways to accommodate "Kosovo's entry" in the Union even though Cyprus and Spain do not recognize it as a sovereign state, regions that already apply the community law can certainly be accepted again.

Even so, why does Brussels not want to deal with it? Undoubtedly, because it has a high cost. First, the EU is already a hard-to-manage organization and does not need to add smaller or microstates. Besides, secessionism is against its spirit of unity. Second, it would be necessary to adjust the treaties to the new political reality as well as renegotiate them with the incubating members. Finally, during that lapse, the financial markets will suffer due to political instability.

Anyway, a secessionist region can become a reality that the EU will need to confront sooner or later. Once a region achieves its independence, it would possibly have a snowballing effect on other regions. How should Europe face it?

The author is a Beijing-based foreign policy analyst. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn



Posted in: VIEWPOINT

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