Catalan President Carles Puigdemont sings the Catalan anthem inside the parliament after a vote on independence in Barcelona, Spain, Oct. 27, 2017.
Catalan President Carles Puigdemont sings the Catalan anthem inside the parliament after a vote on independence in Barcelona, Spain, Oct. 27, 2017.

ROME - Separatists across Europe, from Scotland to Central Europe, have been watching the independence bid launched this month by Catalan secessionists with interest, so too have European leaders, who feared it might trigger a stampede of breakaways.

Turning his back on Barcelona and backing Madrid, EU President Jean-Claude Juncker said he doesn’t want “an EU with 95 different countries tomorrow, or the day after.”

“We need to avoid splits, because we already have enough splits and fractures and we do not need any more ... We would lose control.  National unity and European unity are things that go together,” Juncker added in remarks last week that infuriated Catalan separatists, who see their nationality as Catalan, not Spanish.

With the exception of political leaders in Scotland and Belgium, which is sharply divided between French-speakers and the Flemish, no European leader has spoken in support of the independence aspirations of Catalan separatists, although many expressed alarm at Madrid's handling of Spain’s worst constitutional crisis in nearly four decades.

People in a bar watch the speech of Catalan region
People in a bar watch the speech of Catalan regional president Carles Puigdemont on television in Barcelona, Spain, Thursday, Oct. 26, 2017.

Direct rule

Now that Madrid’s direct-rule control over its restive northeast region appears to be taking hold, there is relief in Brussels, where, ironically, Catalan separatist leader Carles Puigdemont has taken refuge and may apply for political asylum.  The independence bid appears, at this stage at least, to have failed.

Nonetheless, the root causes that led to the secessionist agitation have not disappeared and the specter of separatist movements springing up still haunts EU leaders.  Faced by Brexit and a surge of anti-EU populist nationalism the last thing the bloc’s leaders want are breakaways and possible border disputes roiling the European Union and the continent's financial markets.

Breakaways present Brussels with complex problems over whether they should be allowed EU membership, the impact on the economy, and how to handle sovereign debts.

To try to deter break-ups, EU officials have often paid lip service to the so-called Barroso Doctrine, named after former EU Commission President José Manuel Barroso, who in 2012 warned Scotland that if it seceded from Britain it could not count on being admitted to the European Union or the eurozone.

'Yes' campaigners cheer during a rally in Glasgow,
FILE - 'Yes' campaigners cheer during a rally in Glasgow, Scotland, Sept. 17, 2014.

Is separatism spreading ?

The Catalonia crisis hit just as Brussels was breathing a sigh of relief over election victories earlier this year for political centrists in France and the Netherlands.  Angela Merkel’s win in Germany added to the hope the nationalist wave had crested.

So will other separatist movements strengthen?  The failed independence bid by Catalan separatists may act as a dampener, argue analysts.

At first glance there are 19 other regions on the continent where nationhood or autonomy are issues.  Several wouldn’t cause alarm in Brussels if serious independence bids were mounted.  They include the small Danish island of Bornholm and the Faroe Islands, as well as the French island of Corsica.

The former two have tiny populations, 39,000 and 50,000 respectively.  Corsica's nationalist movement has been seeking greater autonomy since the 1960s, and in the past two years the issue has been heating up.  

In several other European regions: Bavaria, Brittany, Székely Land in Romania, Upper Silesia, the Czech Republic’s Moravia, and Italy’s Sicily pro-independence and autonomy movements exist, but have little political traction.

More disturbing would be the breakup of Belgium.  Flanders, the prosperous and mostly Dutch-speaking region in the north of the country has long sought secession.  The New Flemish Alliance is the largest party in the federal parliament and its plan to push for greater devolution after scheduled elections next year risks conflict with French-speaking Wallonia.

Minister-President of Wallonia, Paul Magnette, att
FILE - Minister-President of Wallonia, Paul Magnette, attends a session in the Walloon Parliament in Namur, Belgium, Oct. 28, 2016.

Better representation

The other flashpoint is the wealthy regions of Lombardy and Veneto, which account for a quarter of Italy’s population.  They complain, much as Catalans do, that they get little back in terms of state services from the central government and their taxes subsidize poorer regions.  

In non-binding referendums earlier this month both regions, which account for 30 percent of Italy’s GDP, voted overwhelmingly to take more control of their economic and tax affairs, immigration and education.  Neither region is asking for independence, but their attitudes towards Rome are hardening and a mishandling of the regions by politicians in the Italian capital could spark a greater challenge.

Some analysts fault the lack of skill shown by Spanish and European institutions in responding to the insurrection-style politics of the Catalan separatists.

“This crisis represents a colossal failure of the Spanish democratic polity as a whole.  Our leaders have proved unable to craft a way out of the current impasse, unlike at other critical periods of the country’s constitutional history where statesmanship was present,” argues Francisco de Borja Lasheras, an analyst with the European Council on Foreign Relations.

That has wider relevance, he says, for other European governments when it comes to handling populist nationalists aiming to widen divisions and polarize politics.

NOTE: This article has been edited to reflect that in Upper Silesia the Silesian Autonomy Movement (Ruch Autonomii ?l?ska) policy is campaigning for autonomy and not for secession.