The spectre of separatism seems to be hovering over Europe these days. From Belgium, Britain and the Balkans to Catalonia and the Caucasus, regional independence or autonomy movements are gaining strength everywhere. And unless the European Union comes to grips with its current existential crisis, history suggests they could become even stronger and more successful, transforming Europe as we have known it for the past twenty years.
The success of independence and secessionist movements has generally accompanied major upheavals in the European geopolitical order, which for the last one hundred and fifty years have taken place every two to three generations. Thus, the change in the European balance of power brought about by Bismarck's unification of Germany and the Ottoman Empire’s decline set in motion processes which in 1878 allowed small states such as Bulgaria, Montenegro and Serbia to gain international recognition at the Congress of Berlin. In 1918, the collapse of the great empires (the Habsburg, Ottoman, and Romanov) at the end of World War I led to another round of redrawing lines on the map, with countries such as Albania, the Baltic republics, Czechoslovakia and Poland breaking out of the empires they had been attached to and becoming full members of the international community.
After 1945, the end of World War II and the process of decolonization ushered in a third wave of statebuilding across much of the globe as European colonies in Africa and Asia gained independence.
From 1989 to 1992, the fourth and most recent wave of European statebuilding took place, triggered by the collapse of communism and the downfall of the Soviet Union. In the geographical space that had in 1989 comprised three states (Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia) there are now between twenty-three and twenty-four (depending on who is doing the counting). Globally, the numbers tell the story very well: in 1914, on the eve of World War I, there were 59 independent countries in the world. By 1950, there were 89. By 1995, there were 192.
And the process is not over, which makes the Balkans and the Caucasus the stuff of nightmares for cartographers and diplomats trying to reconcile competing ethnic claims to territory. In the Caucasus and eastern Anatolia, Abkhazia, Chechnya, Nagorno-Karabakh, South Ossetia, the Kurds of eastern Turkey and northern Iraq, and the Turks of northern Cyprus have all declared some form of independence or autonomy.
Southeastern Europe, of course, has with good reason given birth to the term “Balkanization.” In Bosnia, Croats harbor dreams of re-creating their wartime entity (“Herceg-Bosna”) or someday joining Croatia proper, and Serbs wouldn't mind making Republika Srpska independent or joining Serbia itself. Meanwhile, in the Sandzak region straddling the border between Montenegro and Serbia, a regional Muslim autonomy movement would be happy to unify with co-religionists to the north and create a Greater Bosnia. Serbs in northern Kosovo have declared their autonomy from Pristina, and Albanians in Serbia’s Presevo Valley have likewise in the past declared their desire for unification with Kosovo. Similarly, Albanians in western Macedonia in 1990 declared a Republic of Illirida and are now pushing for a federal territorialization of that state. A significant number of Bulgarians believes that much of eastern Macedonia rightfully belongs to them, autonomist and irredentist sentiment amongst Hungarians in Transylvania are a constant concern for Romania, and the breakaway region of Transnistria continues to cause problems for Moldova.
Importantly, the rise of separatism in Western Europe over the past decade has mirrored similar problems to the east, belying the conventional view that democracy and economic prosperity mollify nationalist tensions and aspirations. Separatism in Western Europe has taken two forms, both rejection of current state arrangements (as in Belgium, Spain and the UK), and rejection of the European Union itself. In Scotland, as Charles King recently observed, nationalism has gained more force than at any other time since William Wallace. Similarly, in Belgium Flemish nationalism has been steadily gaining strength for the past decade, and in Spain in November, separatist parties won almost two-thirds of the seats in Catalonia’s regional elections. The European Free Alliance based in Brussels currently boasts some for forty nationalist and autonomist parties from across the continent. Even the United States is not immune—113,000 people recently signed a petition in support of independence for Texas.
Exacerbating the separatist and secessionist pressure on Europe’s existing geopolitical order has been the notable rise in public dissatisfaction with the EU. In Britain, a November 2012 public opinion poll showed a substantial majority of 56 percent of Britons would opt out of the EU. In Germany, a summer 2012 poll showed that 49 percent of the Germans surveyed believed they would be better off without the EU.
All of the above reflects the all-too-often unacknowledged extent of Europe's fragile equilibrium and what is at stake in the debates over the EU’s future (and, to a great extent, NATO’s future as well). Should the EU collapse under the weight of its own internal problems, the consequent re-ordering of Europe’s geopolitical space would provide the opportunity and political space for many of Europe’s latent nationalisms to have a go at it. Unfortunately, the historical pattern shows that the creation of new states is usually a tremendously bloody affair—Czechoslovakia's velvet divorce was the exception to the historical rule, and Yugoslavia's bloody demise the much more typical one.
Given that the last reordering of Europe's geopolitical structure took place in 1989–91, the fact that such major changes seem to be taking place every two to three generations, and Europe’s current difficulties, whether we are on the cusp of another such upheaval is a valid question. Politicians and pundits are fond of seeing longevity and stability in the world order at any given moment, however ephemeral that stability in reality is. Hitler’s “thousand year Reich” fortunately fell well short of that mark, and the Soviet communists’ belief that their system represented the final stage of socio-economic development in human history didn't last much longer. In 1992, a European diplomat’s proclamation that preventing bloodshed in Yugoslavia represented “the hour of Europe” was much more chronologically accurate than he realized. And on this side of the Atlantic, talk about the “new American century” has not outlasted the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Unwarranted complacency often makes it difficult to see the problems looming just over the horizon.
Gordon N. Bardos is a Balkan politics and security expert based in New York.
Image: Flickr/KaCey97007. CC BY 2.0.