Financial Times


September 14, 2014 4:31 pm

Scottish separatism fuels movements in Spain and Italy

By Tony Barber in London

Basque Country, Catalonia, Veneto and South Tyrol seek independence

From Spain’s Basque Country to Veneto in north-eastern Italy, independence-minded European regions are licking their lips at the prospect that Scotland will vote to secede from the UK in its September 18 referendum.

Their enthusiasm is shared less widely in the international investment community. With Scotland’s result too close to call, it is dawning on investors that the UK is not the only western European country grappling with one or more increasingly confident separatist movements.

To this extent, a recent rise in 10-year Italian and Spanish government bond yields reflects the fears of investors that a Scottish Yes vote would bring closer the eventual break-up of Italy or Spain, throwing doubt on the sustainability of their public debt. For its part, the UK Treasury has sought to calm nerves by promising to guarantee all British government debt whether or not Scotland leaves the 307-year-old union with England and Wales.

Investor anxiety cuts little ice with separatists and autonomists in the Basque Country and Catalonia in Spain, or South Tyrol and Veneto in Italy. In all four regions the idea has taken hold that local prosperity is siphoned off for the benefit of corrupt, bullying and financially incompetent elites in Madrid and Rome.

The growth of Europe’s autonomist and separatist movements can be traced to the 1970s. It was then that Belgium’s Flemish, francophone and German-speaking communities began the reforms that have made the country the EU’s most decentralised state. Italy granted autonomy to South Tyrol, and Spain, after Franco’s death, promoted self-rule everywhere from the Basque Country to the Canary Islands and Galicia.

For the third year in a row, a vast demonstration in support of independence was held on Thursday in Barcelona, Catalonia’s capital, to commemorate the diada – the Catalan national day. Banned under the highly centralised Spanish dictatorship of Francisco Franco, who died in 1975, the diada marks the day in September 1714 when Spanish forces compelled Catalonia’s surrender in the war of the Spanish succession.

The demonstration was expected to be big enough to undercut the arguments of Spain’s central government that separatism has been irremediably discredited by the tax evasion scandal surrounding Jordi Pujol, the father of modern Catalan nationalism.

Indeed, the Pujol affair has made nonsense of the Catalan claim that the putrid piles of Spain’s dirty political linen lie exclusively in non-Catalan closets. But pro-independence sentiment in Catalonia has a self-sustaining momentum – and it emerged several years before Mr Pujol’s conservative CDC party climbed on the separatist bandwagon, a bit tentatively, in 2012.

In depth

Scottish Independence

A Saltire flag

Scotland will decide in a referendum to be held on September 18 whether or not to end the 307-year-old union with England

Further reading

If Scotland’s referendum is boosting Catalonia’s determination to hold a similar consultation in November – the exact form and legal status of such a vote remain unclear – it is also raising Basque hopes. Some 150,000 Basques formed a 123km-long human chain on June 8 in a self-styled “Right to Decide” event that copied the human chains of 1989 in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania as they sought freedom from the Soviet Union.

According to Euskobarómetro, an authoritative sociological survey on Basque nationalism, 59 per cent of Basques want a referendum on independence, up five percentage points in one year. Yet two Italian regions are, in their own eyes, ahead of the Basques and Catalans.

Over the past 12 months, unofficial online referendums have produced majorities for independence in South Tyrol, a mainly ethnic German region annexed from Austria after the first world war, and in Veneto, the region that contains Venice, which was an independent republic for more than 1,000 years before Napoleon demolished it in 1797.

The poll in Veneto was marred by a lack of professional organisation that enabled many ineligible voters to take part. But disgust with the Italian state is so heartfelt that it is unwise to dismiss the restive mood in Veneto and South Tyrol.

As Gianluca Busato, leader of the Veneto separatists, warns: “The right of self-determination that is triumphing in Venice is the only way to free ourselves from the worst bureaucratic monster of the western world – the bloodthirsty beast of the Italian state.”