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Europe deals with independence movements in Britain, Belgium, Spain

- - Wednesday, February 27, 2013

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.

In Belgium, meanwhile, the country's slogan, "Strength through Unity," has been put to the test. Dutch-speaking Flanders in the north of the country and French-speaking Wallonia in the south have been at odds for more than a century.

Flanders is wealthier and more economically productive than Wallonia, an imbalance that has long rankled Flemish voters. The New Flemish Alliance, a party that wants to split Belgium along linguistic lines, stormed to power in Flanders' municipal elections in October and has vowed to achieve self-government -- through independence, if necessary.

"If we can reorganize the state, make it a modern state, have the autonomy we want to be able to run our affairs without having to compromise on everything with the French-speaking, then we can live under the label of Belgium," said Danny Pieters, a Belgian senator and alliance party member. "But the question is whether the French-speaking will accept that."

"The more they are opposed to reform the state in that direction, the more of course the alternative will be complete independence," he added.

Smaller, lesser known regionalist movements — like the Northern League in northern Italy and Corsican nationalists in France — have also fought for more autonomy over the past decade.

Little threat to EU

Despite the support for independence movements, they pose little threat to the unity of the EU because the separatists are strong EU supporters.

"We realize that whether we are Belgian or Flanders, we are still small countries, and we need the EU to mean something in the world," said Mr. Pieters. "Just like the Scottish, just like the Catalans, we see our future within Europe."

In fact, the EU's success in integrating its member states might have made regional independence more accessible and allowed individual identity to flourish.

"Because so much power has now been transferred to the European level of decision-making, the change from being part of Spain to being a sovereign state that is part of the EU would, in fact, not be that dramatic in many ways," said Thomas Klau of the European Council on Foreign Relations in Paris.

However, any new nation would have to apply for EU membership, adopt the euro currency and approve EU treaties such as the one that allows visa-free travel to EU member nations.

As Scottish nationalists campaign for independence, many in Britain are pressing to withdraw from the European Union because they believe the massive bureaucracy in Brussels is a threat to British sovereignty.

Mr. Cameron has announced he will hold a referendum on whether his country should stay in the bloc -- an initiative infuriating his fellow European leaders.

"It would be a disaster for the U.K., a complete disaster economically — the economy is so tied to the EU," said Judy Dempsey, a senior associate at Carnegie Europe's Berlin office. "Britain's diplomacy, its long tradition of foreign policy, its defense and security — it's so important to the EU that if Britain really did leave, it would be damaging."

Yet a recent poll indicated that anti-Brussels sentiment is running high in Britain. Only one in three Brits say they would vote to stay in the union.

A split could give an unintended boost to Scottish nationalists.

"There might be a counter-dynamic in Scotland, whereby a majority of Scottish voters would say, 'Wait a minute. If you English make us collectively as the U.K. leave the EU, we would then opt for Scottish independence so we could rejoin the EU,' " said Mr. Klau.

Mark Briggs in London and Charles McPhedran in Berlin contributed to this report.