The wealthy Ital­ian re­gions of Lom­bardy and Veneto are to hold ref­er­en­dums on Oc­to­ber 22 to de­mand more con­trol of their own af­fairs


the ma­jor­ity of the Scots again brought the in­de­pen­dence is­sue to the fore. How­ever, the Scot­tish Na­tional Party suf­fered a set­back in this year’s West­min­ster elec­tions with a drop in votes.

De­spite this de­cline in votes, Ni­cola Stur­geon’s party re­mains the most pop­u­lar in Scot­land by a wide mar­gin, and sup­port for in­de­pen­dence re­mains con­sis­tent at around 45pc in the polls.

“Most peo­ple don’t think this is the mo­ment to go for another in­de­pen­dence ref­er­en­dum, but the is­sue is still around,” says Pro­fes­sor Keat­ing.

It is still also early days as far as Brexit is con­cerned. If the UK’s de­par­ture from the EU in 2019 leads to a sharp eco­nomic down­turn, there could be re­newed de­mands for in­de­pen­dence.

It re­mains to be seen if the trou­ble in Cat­alo­nia spills over into the Basque coun­try, for long Spain’s main cen­tre for sep­a­ratist ac­tiv­ity.

The sep­a­ratist group ETA, which killed 800 peo­ple in a long ter­ror cam­paign to seek in­de­pen­dence, has con­demned Spain’s op­po­si­tion to the ref­er­en­dum.“The Span­ish state is a prison for the peo­ple, and this is shown by deny­ing the na­tional iden­tity of the Cata­lan coun­tries,” said the group, which gave up vi­o­lence in 2011.

While a han­ker­ing for com­plete in­de­pen­dence re­mains among a mi­nor­ity of Basques, a large sec­tion of the pop­u­la­tion is sat­is­fied that the ter­ri­tory has a much higher de­gree of au­ton­omy than other re­gions in Spain. It col­lects and spends its own taxes, while com­pen­sat­ing Spain for ser­vices such as de­fence and for­eign re­la­tions.

Some com­men­ta­tors be­lieve the driv­ing force of the Cata­lan dis­con­tent and de­mands for greater au­ton­omy in many other re­gions in Europe is the fi­nan­cial bur­den placed on them by cen­tral gov­ern­ment.

In a re­cent in­ter­view for US Na­tional Pub­lic Ra­dio, eco­nom­ics pro­fes­sor Elisenda Paluzie said Cata­lan res­i­dents rep­re­sent about 16pc of Spain’s pop­u­la­tion. Yet these same res­i­dents con­trib­ute 20pc of Spain’s taxes, and then re­ceive only 14pc back in pub­lic spend­ing.

Ac­cord­ing to Prof Paluzie, Cat­alo­nia suf­fered the sharpest bud­get cuts dur­ing the last eco­nomic crash. Calls by its gov­ern­ment to al­low it to raise its own taxes have fallen on deaf ears.

Tax­pay­ers in north­ern re­gions of Italy have also ex­pressed anger that they have pay the bills for other less pros­per­ous re­gions, and this has led them to seek greater au­ton­omy. The wealthy Ital­ian re­gions of Lom­bardy and Veneto are to hold ref­er­en­dums on Oc­to­ber 22 to de­mand more con­trol of their own af­fairs and less power in Rome.

Both re­gions are ruled by the anti-mi­grant Euroscep­tic North­ern League, which has long com­plained that taxes raised in the wealthy in­dus­trial north of Italy help to prop up un­der­per­form­ing south­ern re­gions.

There would be noth­ing new in Venice, cap­i­tal of Veneto, go­ing out on its own if it de­cides to take that course in the fu­ture.

The Most Serene Re­pub­lic of Venice, to give it its old ti­tle, was a pow­er­ful force across the Mediter­ranean dur­ing its 1,000-year his­tory un­til the 18th cen­tury.

In many re­gions of the EU, calls for in­de­pen­dence have ebbed and flowed, and govern­ments have oc­ca­sion­ally suc­ceeded in killing home rule with kind­ness.

There may have been strong cam­paigns for sep­a­ra­tion, but when it came to the crunch, as in Scot­land, vot­ers stepped back from the brink.

Tony Con­nelly, RTÉ’s Europe edi­tor and au­thor of a new book Brexit & Ire­land, has lived in Bel­gium for over a decade and has seen the growth of a Flem­ish in­de­pen­dence move­ment.

Cre­ated in 1830 as an in­de­pen­dent state to act as a buf­fer be­tween France and Ger­many, Bel­gium is an oc­ca­sion­ally un­happy mix of a Flem­ish-speak­ing, con­ser­va­tive north and a French, left-lean­ing south.

With na­tion­al­ist sen­ti­ment more pow­er­ful than ever in Flan­ders, the sep­a­ratist New Flem­ish Al­liance has emerged as the big­gest party in the coun­try and an im­por­tant part­ner in the coali­tion gov­ern­ment.

It aims for the even­tual cre­ation of a Flem­ish re­pub­lic.

“There has been grow­ing pres­sure for in­de­pen­dence,” says Con­nelly. “What I have seen in my time here is a trend to­wards se­ces­sion, but then it sub­sides and re­treats a bit. Peo­ple push so far, and then they are con­fronted with the re­al­ity of what it means to se­cede, and they have sec­ond thoughts.”

In­stead of grant­ing in­de­pen­dence, Euro­pean govern­ments have tended to given re­gions much greater au­ton­omy.

“In Bel­gium so much power has been del­e­gated to the re­gions that it is hard to get things done,” says Con­nelly.

“We even had a sce­nario where a re­gion of Bel­gium, Wal­lo­nia, was able to de­lay the trade deal be­tween the EU and Canada.”

In the short term, Flem­ish se­ces­sion seems un­likely, but if it were to hap­pen it would cast doubt on the fu­ture of Brus­sels as a Euro­pean cap­i­tal.

Of course, from an Ir­ish point of view, the most im­por­tant ques­tion is whether North­ern Ire­land breaks away from the United King­dom, and we see a united Ire­land in the com­ing decades.

As far as Ire­land is con­cerned, it is Brexit rather than the Cata­lan cri­sis that has changed the sit­u­a­tion rad­i­cally, and some com­men­ta­tors be­lieve it has made a united Ire­land more likely in the long term.

Con­nelly ex­plores the fu­ture of the is­land in his new book. He says the pledge by the EU to al­low North­ern Ire­land back into the Euro­pean Union if it votes for a united Ire­land has been hugely sig­nif­i­cant.

“It has in­tro­duced a com­pletely new com­po­nent in the de­bate. Peo­ple who want unity can say that if you hate Brexit — its ef­fect on farm in­comes or what­ever — the one way to over­turn that would be a united Ire­land.”

While the Soviet Union and Yu­goslavia frag­mented in the 1990s cre­at­ing in­de­pen­dent states across East­ern Europe, the bor­ders of Western Europe have re­mained re­mark­ably sta­ble since World War II.

It re­mains to be seen if the un­rest in Cat­alo­nia and the blun­der­ing Span­ish re­sponse fires the start­ing gun for other sep­a­ratist move­ments.

Some, such as Scot­land, might be tempted to go it alone, and seek to shel­ter un­der the um­brella of the EU. Oth­ers will cre­ate a big fuss and as­sert their na­tional iden­tity, but stop short of a com­plete break. In the words of the chil­dren’s poem, they may be in­clined “keep ahold of nurse for fear of find­ing some­thing worse”.

Sol­i­dar­ity: Barcelona play­ers in the colours of the Cata­lan flag on Sun­day

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