Europe deals with independence movements in Britain, Belgium, Spain

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BERLIN — Scotland, Flanders and Catalonia.

Independence movements in these regions of Britain, Belgium and Spain are raising concerns about the stability of a fractious European Union trying to forge closer ties to prevent economic catastrophe.

Cultural identity plays a role in each independence movement, but some of the separatists are also gaining support over the response to the debt crisis in the 27-nation EU, analysts say.

“When a national government is hell bent on austerity and pulling out resources, whatever tension that exists between [political] centers and the periphery is going to be even that much more awkward,” said Ben Tonra, a professor who specializes in European relations at Ireland’s University College Dublin.

The EU has spent billions of dollars to bail out fiscally reckless countries like Greece and prevent a collapse of the euro, a currency used by 17 of the member-nations.

Catalonia’s secession movement has been germinating in Spain for decades. Catalonia — already a strongly autonomous region in northeast Spain — decided late last year to hold a referendum on independence within the next four years, despite opposition from the central government in Madrid.

Residents of Catalonia, Spain’s economic powerhouse, are growing resentful as Madrid redistributes their wealth to other parts of the country and leaves the region with a massive debt.

“We pay a lot in and get back very little,” said 36-year-old architect Albert Estruga, a steadfast supporter of independence and a resident of the Catalonia capital, Barcelona.

“People are fed up with the lack of respect towards our interests and our culture We contribute a lot to Spain, and they have never recognized that,” he added. “At some point people have to say enough is enough.”

Struggle for Scotland

In Scotland, nationalists are struggling to gain support for an independence referendum next year, but officials from London to EU headquarters in Brussels are still anxious over the possible breakup of Britain.

“The only way to defend the social fabric of Scotland … is through Scottish independence,” said Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond, leader of the ruling pro-independence Scottish National Party.

Still, the latest poll by the respected social research group ScotCen showed that only 23 percent of Scots want a separate state, the lowest level of support in years.

British Prime Minister David Cameron initially tried to prevent a referendum, declaring it illegal under British law; but he has changed his mind and launched a campaign to persuade Scots to stay within the United Kingdom, created in 1707 by the union of the English and Scottish parliaments.

“Put simply: Britain works. Britain works well. Why break it?” Mr. Cameron said in an article on the Downing Street website, vowing to give his all to keep the 306-year-old union intact.

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