On top of the many economic and political challenges Europe will face in 2017 is secessionism. At present, there are about 100 active autonomist groups across Europe—although with varying degrees of popular support and commitment—and Catalonia and Scotland are once again at the epicenter. In a New Year’s speech, Catalonian President Carles Puigdemont promised to hold in September a “legal and binding” referendum on the territory’s secession from Spain. Meanwhile, Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, has made clear that a hard Brexit, involving an outright withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union and the single market, would trigger a second referendum on Scottish independence. Although a number of legal and political obstacles are likely to frustrate Barcelona’s and Edinburgh’s irredentist plans, secessionism will remain a major threat to European integrity in the years to come. And here is the Catch-22: The more Europe integrates, the more the nations within it disintegrate.
Historical grievances, cultural heterogeneity, and political tensions underlie these secessionist movements. Since the unification of the Iberian Peninsula five centuries ago, Catalonia has repeatedly tried to break away from Spain. Under Francisco Franco’s brutal dictatorship, Madrid attempted to repress the Catalan culture altogether—banning its language, traditions, and institutions. Currently, the main cause of resentment has to do with the excessively high levels of taxation imposed upon the region. Similarly, Scotland asserted its independence over and over again from the ninth century until its official unification with England in 1707, when the Scots, short of money, had to capitulate. This tragic decision led poet Robert Burns to write, “We’re bought and sold for English gold—Such a parcel of rogues in a nation!” And now the major sources of tensions are represented by diverging views on the role the British government should play in the Scottish economy and on the management of the region’s energy sources.
But neither culture nor history has been enough to justify a painful divorce; economics has