This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
Happy families are all alike: every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
—Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
The opening to Tolstoy’s great novel of love and tragedy could be a metaphor for Europe today, where “unhappy families” of Catalans, Scots, Belgians, Ukrainians and Italians contemplate divorcing the countries they are currently a part of. And in a case where reality mirrors fiction, they are each unhappy in their own way.
While the United States and its allies may rail against the recent referendum in Crimea that broke the peninsula free of Ukraine, Scots will consider a very similar one on September 18, and Catalans would very much like to do the same. So would residents of South Tyrol, and Flemish speakers in northern Belgium.
On the surface, many of these secession movements look like rich regions trying to free themselves from poor ones, but while there is some truth in that, it is overly simplistic. Wealthier Flemish speakers in northern Belgium would indeed like to separate from the distressed, French-speaking south, just as Tyroleans would like to free themselves of poverty-racked southern Italy. But in Scotland, much of the fight is over preserving the social contract that conservative Labour and right-wing Tory governments have systematically dismantled. As for Catalonia—well, it’s complicated.
Borders in Europe may appear immutable, but of course they are not. Sometimes they are changed by war, economic necessity or because the powerful draw capricious lines that ignore history and ethnicity. Crimea, conquered by Catherine the Great in 1783, was arbitrarily given to Ukraine in 1954. Belgium was the outcome of a congress of European powers in 1830. Impoverished Scotland tied itself to wealthy England in 1707. Catalonia fell to Spanish and French armies in 1714. And South Tyrol was a spoil of World War I.
In all of them, historical grievance, uneven development and ethnic tensions have been exacerbated by a long-running economic crisis. There is nothing like unemployment and austerity to fuel the fires of secession.
The two most pressing secessionist movements—and the ones most likely to have a profound impact on the rest of Europe—are in Scotland and Catalonia.
Both are unhappy in different ways.
Scotland always had a vocal, albeit marginal, nationalist party, but was traditionally dominated by the British Labour Party. The Conservatives hardly exist north of the Tweed. But Tony Blair’s “New Labour” record of spending cuts and privatization alienated many Scots, who spend more on their education and health services than the rest of Britain. University tuition, for instance, is still free in Scotland, as are prescription drugs and home healthcare.