Europe’s Regional Revolts

MADRID – In both Catalonia and Scotland, calls for independence are growing once again – an indication of conditions not only in Spain and the United Kingdom, but in the European Union as a whole. Indeed, the EU’s weakness in confronting its financial crisis both reflects and reinforces the erosion of its raison d'être – political integration. Whatever its roots in old grievances, secessionism, it seems, is a painful symptom of this degenerative process.

The perverse irony here is that Europe’s shrewdest secession-minded parties are dressing up their programs in European garb, promising that the new states will have automatic EU membership. The Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) and Convergència i Unió (CiU) in Catalonia are both exploiting the concept of European cosmopolitanism to revive narrow nationalist ends and, ultimately, to break up the countries of which they are now a part.

No provisions of EU law address the disintegration of a member state, as secession contradicts the core principle of “ever closer Union.” That is why there are increasing calls to send a message to electorates in would-be secessionist regions that EU membership would not be guaranteed in the event of independence. Alex Salmond, Scotland’s first minister and the SNP’s leader, proclaimed that the guarantee of EU membership was a matter of law; because it is not, he and his party now face their biggest crisis since coming to power in 2007.

This legal void explains why, in the run-up to Catalonia’s elections on November 25, the CiU’s leaders are so eager to convert an informal referendum on independence into a plebiscite on Catalans’ desire for EU membership (which is neither at issue nor up to the electorate in Catalonia to decide). Rationally, if not legally, the only coherent question that the CiU government could pose is whether Catalans wish to be part of Spain.