Saturday

29th Apr 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.

Column / Brexit Briefing

May’s election juggernaut

The prime minister's Tories almost need not bother campaigning for the June election. There is no opposition worthy of the name.

Brexit is about Europe's future as well

Europe must learn the lessons of TTIP and ensure that the negotiations transparently address the broad interests of European citizens, including on climate change and the environment.

Column / Brexit Briefing

May's drive for one-party Brexit state

Snap election will kill off attempts to reopen debate on second referendum and inflict further damaged on confused opposition.

News in Brief

  1. Vote of no confidence prepared against Spanish PM
  2. Syria to buy Russian anti-missile system
  3. Germany seeks partial burka ban
  4. Libya has no plan to stop migration flows
  5. EU has no evidence of NGO-smuggler collusion in Libya
  6. Poland gets 'final warning' on logging in ancient forest
  7. Commission gives Italy final warning on air pollution
  8. Romania and Slovenia taken to court over environment policies

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. European Healthy Lifestyle AllianceCharlotte Hornets' Nicolas Batum Tells Kids to "Eat Well, Drink Well, Move!"
  2. ECR GroupSyed Kamall: We Need a New, More Honest Relationship With Turkey
  3. Counter BalanceParliament Sends Strong Signal to the EIB: Time to Act on Climate Change
  4. ACCARisks and Opportunities of Blockchain and Shared Ledgers Technologies in Financial Services
  5. UNICEFRace Against Time to Save Millions of Lives in Yemen
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersDeveloping Independent Russian-Language Media in the Baltic Countries
  7. Swedish EnterprisesReform of the European Electricity Market: Lessons from the Nordics, Brussels 2 May
  8. Malta EU 2017Green Light Given for New EU Regulation to Bolster External Border Checks
  9. Counter BalanceCall for EU Commission to Withdraw Support of Trans-Adriatic Pipeline
  10. ACCAEconomic Confidence at Highest Since 2015
  11. European Federation of Allergy and Airways60%-90% of Your Life Is Spent Indoors. How Does Poor Indoor Air Quality Affect You?
  12. European Gaming and Betting AssociationCJEU Confirms Obligation for a Transparent Licensing Process

Latest News

  1. May’s election juggernaut
  2. EPP scolds Orban over university and NGO laws
  3. Oxford-Studie besorgt über 'Schrott' News in Frankreich
  4. Alte Freundschaft zwischen Le Pen und Putin
  5. EP chief faces questions after homophobic 'summit'
  6. EU signals Northern Ireland could join if united with Ireland
  7. One year later: EU right to open internet still virtual
  8. Rethinking Europe's relationship with Turkey

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Region and the US: A Time of Warlike Rhetoric and Militarisation?
  2. European Free AllianceEFA MEPs Vote in Favor of European Parliament's Brexit Mandate
  3. Mission of China to the EUXinhua Insight: China to Open up Like Never Before
  4. World VisionViolence Becomes New Normal for Syrian Children
  5. International Partnership for Human RightsTime to Turn the Tide and End Repression of Central Asia's Civil Society
  6. European Free AllianceAutonomia to Normalnosc - Poland Urged to Re-Grant Autonomy to Silesia
  7. UNICEFHitting Rock Bottom - How 2016 Became the Worst Year for #ChildrenofSyria
  8. Malta EU 2017Green Light Given for New EU Regulation to Bolster External Border Checks
  9. ACCAG20 Citizens Want 'Big Picture' Tax Policymaking, According to Global Survey
  10. Belgrade Security ForumCall for Papers: European Union as a Global Crisis Manager - Deadline 30 April
  11. European Gaming & Betting Association60 Years Rome Treaty – 60 Years Building an Internal Market
  12. Malta EU 2017New EU Rules to Prevent Terrorism and Give More Rights to Victims Approved