Monday

26th Jun 2017

Opinion

Towards a plausible EU response to breakaway regions

  • Catalan flags: secessionism could have a destabilising effect on the Union as a whole (Photo: SBA73)

Despite claims to the contrary, the EU is essentially a union of nation states, and it will remain such until there is a radical overhaul of the acquis communautaire, which, at present at least, is not foreseen.

There is no better proof for this assertion than the fact that, even after its "upgrade" in the Lisbon Treaty, the European Parliament - the only institution directly elected by the peoples of Europe - is also the weakest of them all.

Dear EUobserver reader

Subscribe now for unrestricted access to EUobserver.

Sign up for 30 days' free trial, no obligation. Full subscription only 15 € / month or 150 € / year.

  1. Unlimited access on desktop and mobile
  2. All premium articles, analysis, commentary and investigations
  3. EUobserver archives

EUobserver is the only independent news media covering EU affairs in Brussels and all 28 member states.

♡ We value your support.

If you already have an account click here to login.

When the financial and sovereign debt crises posed an existential threat to the EU, the decision-making process immediately shifted from community institutions to national representations.

Greeks, for example, know only too well that it is the Eurogroup, and the EU Council (and not the European Commission), which will ultimately decide whether to pull the plug from the bailout mechanism and force their country out of the single currency.

But when the integrity of its nation states comes under threat, the EU cannot keep a safe distance from the events unfolding in Flanders, Catalonia, or Scotland, much as some of its stakeholders would like to do so.

The recent resurgence of secessionist movements, in the aftermath of the crisis, will pose multiple challenges for Brussels.

Firstly, European regions aspiring to independence have already started to ask disturbing questions, implicitly for the moment, but soon also explicitly: will Scotland have to re-apply for EU membership if its people vote in favor of independence in the 2014 referendum? Will Catalans be deprived of their current European citizenship if they choose to secede from Spain? How will the EU react if one of its members asks for security assistance because it faces a "national security threat" in the form of an independence movement?

Conventional legal wisdom says that if a new state pops up into existence in Europe, then it will have to go through the whole accession process and secure unanimous approval by all existing members of the Union before being accepted into the club.

According to the Lisbon Treaty, European citizenship is “complementary” to national citizenship of a member-state.

But one should not rush to the conclusion that in this way the “problem is solved” or underestimate the complexities of an unprecedented legal and political event, in which the possibility of violent upheaval cannot be excluded.

History - especially in eastern Europe - has shown that secessions work in domino effect.

Even if the EU could politically and legally handle an isolated secessionist incident (say, Scotland), an potential knowck-on effect of similar demands in the Basque country, Catalonia, South Tyrol, Flanders, Alsatians and Corsicans in France, Poles in Lithuania, Frisians in the Netherlands and Muslims in north-eastern Greece would destabilise the Union as a whole.

Even today, the very fear of secessionist movements influences the conduct of EU policy.

For example, five out of the 27 EU countries - Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Slovakia and Spain refuse to recognise Kosovo - in case it would embolden separatist movements on their home territories.

The situation is especially complicated in Cyprus, the only EU member state which, according to the UN, is partly under foreign (Turkish) occupation.

EU approval for secession by any given region in Europe would be seen by Cypriot authorities as a green light for a de jure partition of the island.

Even in less complicated cases, such as the UK, a positive EU approach to Scottish independence would place further strain on London-Brussels relations.

So how should the EU respond?

Above all, by keeping its cool.

Secessionist movements are not irreversible. For example, opinion polls show that in Scotland a clear majority is set to vote for the country to remain part of the UK.

In Spain, the polls say Catalans want a referendum but they are divided on whether they will vote for or against independence.

Nationalists in Flanders appear willing to settle for a confederation rather than a full break-up, while the conundrum of who would get Brussels is difficult enough to help hold Belgium together.

The EU should adopt a clear position on the legal status of the breakaway regions - people aspiring to independence are entitled to make informed decisions.

Feeling in Scotland and Catalonia demonstrates that the probability of being expelled from the EU is a strong deterrent to secession.

EU nation states should do more to reduce of income discrepancies between regions.

In most cases of secessionist movements, the major argument is that their people are sick of "subsidising" either their central government or poorer regions. The more effective use of EU structural funds in order to help poorer regions to catch up could be a matter of survival for some member states.

It is now almost certain that a Treaty revision process will start immediately after the 2014 EU elections.

So far, doomsday scenarios about a eurozone or an EU break-up have proven dead wrong.

The crisis has sped up the European unification process in almost every respect - fiscal, financial, political. As the EU moves towards even more integration, its regions should also be given a stronger role in decision making.

The case of Germany - the most successful federal state in the EU - illustrates that strong regional governance and federalism are not incompatible.

On the contrary, regional self-rule in Germany gives democratic legitimatacy to the federal structure.

Nikos Chrysoloras is a Brussels-based EU correspondent for Kathimerini, Greece’s leading newspaper, and a research fellow at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP)

Catalonia to play bigger role in Spanish EU affairs

Once Catalonia's new autonomy statute comes into force the region will be playing a bigger role in Spain's dealings with the EU, with some fearing even greater difficulty to reach decisions at the European level.

A positive agreement for Greece

The outcome of the Eurogroup meeting this week leaves a positive footprint, setting the basis for the Greek economy to exit the vicious circle of austerity and debt.

Britain preparing to jump off a cliff

Following the poor performance of Theresa May's Conservatives in the recent UK general election, her prospects of negotiating a good Brexit deal have gone from bad to worse.

Forcing refugees on Poland will do more harm than good

While the principle behind the EU's decision to take action against Poland for rejecting its refugee quota is understandable, the move could have damaging long-term consequences while bringing absolutely no benefit at all.

Are MEPs too 'free' to be accountable?

The European Parliament is currently fine-tuning its negotiating position on the Commission's proposal from September 2016 for a mandatory transparency register. Sadly, so far it seems to prefer empty statements to bold action.

News in Brief

  1. Merkel and Macron hold symbolic joint press conference
  2. Juncker has 'no' clear idea of kind of Brexit UK wants
  3. Belgian PM calls May's proposal on EU citizens 'vague'
  4. UK lacks support of EU countries in UN vote
  5. Spain to command anti-smuggler Mediterranean force
  6. Estonia confirms opposition to Nord Stream 2 pipeline
  7. Ireland and Denmark outside EU military plan
  8. EU leaders renew vows to uphold Paris climate deal

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. EPSUOn Public Services Day, Stop Austerity! Workers Need a Pay Rise!
  2. EGBAOnline Gambling: The EU Court Rejects Closed Licensing Regimes In Member States
  3. World VisionFaces of Today, Leaders of Tomorrow: Join the Debate on Violence Against Girls - 29 June
  4. ECR GroupThe EU Must Better Protect Industry from Unfair Competition
  5. Malta EU 2017Better Protection for Workers From Cancer-Causing Substances
  6. EPSUAfter 9 Years of Austerity Europe's Public Sector Workers Deserve a Pay Rise!
  7. Dialogue PlatformGlobalised Religions and the Dialogue Imperative. Join the Debate!
  8. UNICEFEU Trust Fund Contribution to UNICEF's Syria Crisis Response Reaches Nearly €200 Million
  9. EUSEW17Bringing Buildings Into the Circular Economy. Discuss at EU Sustainable Energy Week
  10. European Healthy Lifestyle AllianceCan an Ideal Body Weight Lead to Premature Death?
  11. Malta EU 2017End of Roaming Charges: What Does It Entail?
  12. World VisionWorld Refugee Day, a Dark Reminder of the Reality of Children on the Move

Latest News

  1. Macron’s investment screening idea watered down by leaders
  2. Leaders unimpressed by May’s offer to EU citizens
  3. New Irish PM praises unscripted nature of EU summits
  4. EU extends sanctions on Russia
  5. UK's universities set 'Brexit wish list'
  6. Decision on post-Brexit home for EU agencies postponed
  7. May's offer on citizens’ rights dismissed as ‘pathetic’
  8. 'Historic' defence plan gets launch date at EU summit

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. European Social Services ConferenceDriving Innovation in the Social Sector I 26-28 June
  2. Dialogue PlatformMuslims Have Unique Responsibility to Fight Terror: Opinon From Fethullah Gülen
  3. EUSEW17Check out This Useful Infographic on How to Stay Sustainable and Energy Efficient.
  4. Counter BalanceEuropean Parliament Criticises the Juncker Plan's Implementation
  5. The Idealist QuarterlyDoes Europe Really Still Need Feminism? After-Work Chat on 22 June
  6. EUSEW17Create an Energy Day Event Before the End of June. Join the Call for Clean Energy
  7. UNICEF1 in 5 Children in Rich Countries Lives in Relative Income Poverty, 1 in 8 Faces Food Insecurity
  8. International Partnership for Human Rights26 NGOs Call on Interpol Not to Intervene Versus Azerbaijani Human Rights Defenders
  9. Malta EU 2017Significant Boost in Financing for SMEs and Entrepreneurs Under New Agreement
  10. World VisionYoung People Rise up as EU Signs Consensus for Development at EU Development Days
  11. ILGA-EuropeLGBTI Activists and Businesses Fighting Inequality Together
  12. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Prime Ministers Respond to Trump on Paris Agreement