Cause and Effect in European Politics and Law

The Crisis - a Platzdarm for the Separatists

Zhaneta Kuyumdzhieva, trainee, November 7, 2012

Traditionally, the local elections in Belgium do not draw too much attention. This year, however, things are a bit different. Bart De Wever, leader of the New Flemish Alliance (N-VA), has won the race for mayor of Antwerp*. He calls for the transformation of the country into a confederation. This statement was met with resistance by Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo, but undoubtedly the next federal elections there in 2014 will be really interesting. And financial woes were the reason for another wave of separatist movements on the Pyrenees. Catalan President Artur Mas vowed to hold a referendum on November 25th among the citizens of the area for the independence of Spain's richest region, in spite of the disapproval of the central government.

The El Pais newspaper quoted a poll, held by the Centre for Public Attitudes Studies in Catalonia, showing 74.1% of the local citizens support a referendum for an independent future of the north-east autonomous region. On September 11th, they "celebrated" their "national holiday" of the region with a mass demonstration in Barcelona under the slogan "Catalonia - the next state in Europe". Will it be the next is not that certain, especially after the latest news around Scotland. On October 14th, British Prime Minister David Cameron and Alex Salmond, leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP) and first minister of Scotland, agreed on a long negotiated deal to hold a referendum for the independence of the north-western country in the United Kingdom.

The agreement, signed in Edinburgh, legitimises Holyrood's right to hold a national referendum among its five-million strong local population. Voting will take place in the autumn of 2014. As Salmond himself described the reached agreement with London, it is a "a major step forward in Scotland’s home rule journey". In the past months, its path was definitely twisting. The ruling party in Scotland proposed several options to the British government for solving the unsatisfactory for the secessionists and their supporters status quo. At the table of the negotiations, the option of full independence was put forward, but as alternatives were tabled two separate platforms for greater autonomy as well. One of the most disputed points, however, was what the question should be. London insisted the question to be one and to require a "yes" or "no" answer.

Cameron also made a concession in the negotiations for the referendum. The Scottish first minister secured the possibility 16-year olds to be allowed to vote as well, considered a radical electorate. What will be the outcome of the referendum is a question with the answer to which a few analysts dare to engage. The 29th report of NatCen Social Research, published on September 17th 2012, concluded the following regarding the Scottish dilemma:

1. At the moment, the Scots that support their country leaving the United Kingdom, are a minority because of their doubts in the material benefits the independence might bring to the country.
2. Although the citizens, who now look not very inclined to vote for an exit from Britain, are a majority, a significant part of them would after all like Scotland to take over the governance of its internal affairs, including the tax system and social privileges. This shows that a different scheme of decentralisation would satisfy this group.
3. Although the signs, showing support for decentralisation by the English themselves, are a few, the poll suggests that their discontent from the overall government is growing. This attitude can easily cause a loss of support for the Union. In other words, the discontent of the English from London's fiscal policy toward Edinburgh could find expression in an agreement for greater decentralisation for Scotland.

Although in the past year or two, the issue had a leading place on the agenda of the public in Britain, pollsters report that in the years since 1997 the support for independence has not gone through dramatic changes and up to date it has not gained more supporters, on the contrary. The highest share of supporters (37%) for the idea for a full secession from Britain, there was in 1997 when there was a referendum for partial transfer of powers to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The next peak was in 2005 - 35% - and five years later it reached its lowest level of 23%. This decline has recovered with the second in a row, but much clearer victory of the SNP at the elections in 2011. Now 32% of the Scots support independence and 51 per cent of those who voted for Alex Salmond's nationalists in 2011 today tend to say "yes" to leaving the Union.

Last but not least are the conclusions for the motives of the citizens to choose the path of independent future. According to the poll, behind the desire of the Scots to support the idea of independence, is not that much their national self-awareness, but rather whether independence would have a good impact on the economy of the country. If independence happens, what is next? Membership in the EU or following Norway's example? Scotland's intentions as an independent state, although this status still is not certain and is far away now, should start emerging. And the time for a plan for development has come.

*In a previous version of this text Mr Bart De Wever was incorrectly put as already a mayor of Antwerp. He has won the elections but is not installed as mayor yet