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October 24, 2021

EU: State fragmentation

The European crisis has not only led to a recrudescence of extremism, nationalism and populism in European politics, but has also precipitated a historical process resuscitated already twenty years ago on the Old Continent: the fragmentation of states. Twenty years ago, while the USSR was collapsing, the phenomenon instantaneously resurged and the foundation on the ruins of the old empire of 15 new independent states was followed by the violent (Yugoslavia) or velvet (Czechoslovakia) dismembering of federations in the Eastern array of the continent. We now witness the emergence of this phenomenon which is equally strong and somewhat extensive in the West of Europe. The coincidence of its quick beginning with the deepening of the sovereign debt crisis and the EU austerity policy (recently under major attack of criticism) cannot escape any through criticism.

Not just because, for instance in Spain, Catalonia is unhappy with the cuts operated by the central government and which have a direct impact on the region, or that Flanders invokes the same argument as they do in Northern Italy, that is that the rich North is exploited by asymmetric budget allocations by the poor South, but also because, in the case of Scotland, the independentist believe the exploitation of local oil reserves will claw them out of the austerity pursued by London. But those arguments have been catalysed and pushed to the forefront of the political debate by the secessionist amidst the popular dissatisfaction with the austerity measures having been taken to avoid the deepening of the crisis. Another coincidence is the circumstance that this separatist outburst is happening against the background of nation-states surrendering more and more sovereignty prerogatives to Brussels, especially in the economic and financial areas. In a context like this where budget allocations are limited by austerity policies, even if the mentioned regions do enjoy a broad cultural and political autonomy, secessionism has gained an impressive strength. It can actually set the short term political agendas of the concerned states. It is evident that, if such nationalist-secessionist fits were violently stopped in the past – see the case of Northern Ireland, where the armed clashes were followed by a sinuous, yet successful peace process – what happens now has totally different options of evolution. It is not so much about Scotland that, on October 15, obtained the David Cameron Cabinet’s permission to organise a referendum on independence, as it is about the other regions that would claim independence. Counting on an anti-separatist referendum response, the British prime minister imposed the use of a single question in the referendum to freeze the claim for a long time – therefore allowing no add-ons to the massive autonomy obtained by devolution of powers – but in Catalonia or Flanders the elections that have taken place yielded majorities advocating independentism. But time will work in their favour if the current economic and financial policy is carried on untroubled as it appears to be and austerity will still reign in Europe for a long time to come. It is true that in Flanders they are working on a very slim confederation, probably having in mind the difficulty of splitting the EU Brussels, but also the benefits brought to both sides by the city’s status as the capital of Europe, but, in South Tyrol (Alto Adige), as a recent British press article was noting, Italians are ready to literally fight to prevent the secession of the region and its annexation to Austria.  In the last weekend election in the Basque Country, the nationalist and separatist scored a massive victory, but it is little likely that they will go as far as claiming independence, the majority supporting instead a wide autonomy inside Spain. Another note that needs to be made is that, even in Bavaria, Germany, separatist voices have been heard lately, of course also driven by a century old tradition of separation and by the wish to profit from own economic prosperity without having to share it with less privileged regions. Therefore, if the phenomenon of state fragmentation has become more visible in Western Europe lately, also enhanced by the lingering economic and political crisis, it is just as true that it is by no mean the main development trend. Even if the European Union encourages regionalisation as a stimulus of effective economic growth and is an enthusiastic partisan of diversity, keeping order and tranquillity in Europe and the world requires systemic stability. Or, the national state may have lost some of its old political and economic strength as a result of the accelerated integration into macro-organisations such as the EU, but its fragmentation cannot be an adequate answer to the challenges of the future. A Europe of more states than the current map shows – both the map of the current EU and the map of the EU after future enlargements with the western Balkans, for instance – would be extremely difficult to lead, and that would be a useless and harmful complication of the existing network of cooperation and management.Baseline regulations for the functioning of the EU require consensus – including the expansion of the organisation – and it is hard to assume that a consensus will still be possible to achieve in the context of a major state fragmentation. Not to mention the reality that secession usually raises often violent reactions from the parent state, which would work against the ‘genetic’ heritage of the EU, an organisation founded exactly to safeguard peace and stability on a continent that had been shaken and crushed by far too many wars in its history. Because what Europe’s recent or more remote history shows – there can be innumerable examples covering not just the last world wars, but also the recent violent dismantling of Yugoslavia or the blood-bathed Northern Ireland dossier – such destructuring/fragmentation of states most often end up in devastating conflicts. Or the European Union was historically founded exactly for the purpose of preventing such dangerous developments.

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