ANTWERP, Belgium — As debt-burdened European governments struggle to overcome the disparities in their still-imperfect union, old demons of regional separatism have surged anew in recent months, raising another unwelcome challenge to the continent’s traditional nation-states.
Separatist movements have dramatically reinforced their positions here in Belgium’s prosperous Flanders region, where the independence-minded New Flemish Alliance captured Antwerp’s 16th-century City Hall on Oct. 14 and, under its populist leader Bart De Wever, is heading into national elections in 2014 with new wind in its sails.
“There is an outcry in Flanders for change,” declared Danny Pieters, vice president of the Belgian Senate and a senior Flemish alliance leader.
Independence-minded nationalists also have made recent gains in Spain’s Basque Country, returning to power in the regional government after a four-year pause, and in Catalonia, where separatists running the regional government have threatened to hold a referendum on whether to remain part of Spain. In Scotland, which has been part of Great Britain for 300 years, such a referendum has already been scheduled for autumn 2014.
“Secessionist temptations are legion on our continent these days,” Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a Green representative in the European Parliament, warned in a recent column.
Viewed from afar, the nations of Europe seem to have such a timeless history, under kings, prime ministers and presidents, that no one would think of pulling out of the country in favor of regional separatism. But struggles for regional cultural and political independence – the Basque ETA set off bombs for decades – have long burned under the surface.
In the Balkans, the death of Marshal Tito set off bloody regional wars in the 1990s that resulted in the breakup of Yugoslavia into half a dozen new states. Czechoslovakia also spilt after the fall of the Soviet Union, but peacefully, into the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
Western Europe’s recently successful separatist leaders have shown no clear inclination for such violence. But even if the separatists remain peaceful, the resurgence of regional nationalists has created another debilitating struggle for leaders already trying hold together a European Union undermined by punishing debts and divergent economies.
Ironically, the regional separatists have benefited from the success of the European Union and the ideal of seeing, one day, a United States of Europe in which the role of national governments would diminish. Artur Mas, the Catalonian nationalist leader, and De Wever, his counterpart in Antwerp, both have spoken lyrically of seeing their regions as independent nations within such a federated Europe.
In most instances, breakaway leaders have strengthened their positions recently because they found it easier to broaden their support in the context of Europe’s relentless financial crisis. By forcing central governments to enact painful tax increases and spending cuts, the crisis has made the perennial quests for local independence more attractive to ordinary people who feel they are over-taxed for social welfare programs that transfer wealth to other regions.