The overwhelming electoral success of Flanders’ nationalists this weekend can be seen as part of a larger Western European regionalization movement that threatens the very foundation of the European Union.
In Belgium, Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom, secessionist groups are on the rise while across the north of Europe, popular resentment to the prospect of perennial transfer union is mounting.
Like the Flemish nationalists, Italy’s Lega Nord and the Convergence and Union party in Catalonia, Spain seek either increased autonomy or independence for their regions. The three parties share a liberally conservative ideology while the regions have in common that they are the wealthiest in their respective countries. The Flemish, northern Italians and Catalans generally consider themselves more hardworking and enterprising than the lethargic and spendthrift French-speaking Walloons, southern Italians and other Spaniards.
Their perception corresponds with a pan-European divergence between northerners whose patience with profligate Southern European member states of the currency union is wearing thin. Dutch, Finnish and German voters are increasingly frustrated with the bailing out of weaker countries in the periphery of the eurozone when precious little progress toward fiscal consolidation and reform appears to be made in Greece, Italy and Spain.
The German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble spoke for many in his country when he said in February, “The realization that there is a need for change still needs to develop further with a lot of people in Greece.” The Germans believe that they have made the financial sacrifices necessary to stay competitive in the twenty-first century, including the costs associated with unification as well as labor market and pension reforms, when the Southern Europeans were able to free ride on their success.
Some 65 percent of Germans has come to believe that they would be better off without the euro. Particularly in Germany’s wealthiest province of Bavaria, Euroskepticism is rising.
The Southern European perception is very different. Many Greeks believe that their country has already done the utmost to repair its shady finances. Former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi insisted last month that it was “absolutely impossible” for his country to reduce its debt at the pace that is required by his neighbors.
There are calls in Italy for leaving the eurozone but perhaps the most potent secessionist movement is the Lega Nord, Berlusconi’s former coalition partner. It has consistently polled at roughly 10 percent nationwide but controls several local governments in the north where Italians feel more closely related with their Alpine neighbors than their countrymen in the south.
As in Belgium, the north of Italy is the industrial heartland of the nation whereas the south is more agricultural, impoverished and financially dependent on the central government. Both countries are economic transfer states. The resentment of Belgium’s and Italy’s northerners runs parallel to that of the Dutch and the Finns and the Germans with the emerging reality of transfer union in Europe: the permanent bailing out of the weaker states at their expense.
The present economic hardships are grounded in historical animosities. For the Flemish, it’s the century long political domination by a French-speaking aristocracy although, since Belgian independence from the Netherlands in 1831, the northern burghers and tradesmen have formed the backbone of the nation’s economy. In Italy, opposition to unification in the nineteenth century was largely concentrated in the south where there was even armed resistance to the movement that originated in northwestern Piedmont.
The Catalan independence movement emerged during the Spanish Civil War and was strengthened by the Galician Francisco Franco’s subsequent oppression of local culture for 35 years. Catalonia now accounts for 16 percent of Spain’s population but more than a fifth of its gross domestic product. Opinion polls suggest that a majority of voters in the region favors secession. Snap elections scheduled for November 25 are expected to return a pro-independence regional parliament with Convergence and Union alone possibly winning up to 40 percent of the vote.
While one of the pillars of European integration, interregional solidarity, is under pressure, in Brussels, the likes of European Council president Herman Van Rompuy and the leader of the liberals in the European Parliament Guy Verhofstadt — both, ironically, former Belgian prime ministers — are pushing plans for closer political union. They would evidently rather it be otherwise but the age of nationalism in Europe clearly hasn’t yet come to an end.