The effects of the euro zone crisis are being felt across the political landscapes of Europe’s beleaguered nations. The European Union, originally intended as a project of integration to bring countries and economic regions together, is now witnessing regional demands for greater political autonomy or outright secession that will only serve to weaken the political institutions of Europe’s member states and the unity of the continent.

The economic dimension of the Euro area crisis – the multiple banking crises, the government debt crises, and ongoing economic sluggishness – has been with us for several years now. Europe’s problems have slowed the world economy and despite hesitant progress toward some coordinated solutions, European and global economic growth will likely remain lackluster at best throughout 2013.

The ongoing economic crisis is taking its toll on Europe’s citizens.  A whole slew of social problems, ranging from unsustainably high rates of unemployment to a gradual breakdown in health and other social services, has given rise to the growing frequency and intensity of mass demonstrations across the continent, particularly in Southern Europe where the fiscal crisis is most acute.

Given current economic and social circumstances, it should not be surprising to observers that the political costs are mounting and the very institutional arrangements that govern Europe’s member states are being challenged from below by Europe’s unhappy regions. In the United Kingdom, which is not a euro zone member but is inextricably tied to the continent’s economy, Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron gave in to Scottish demands this month and has offered Scotland the opportunity to hold a referendum on its future by the end of 2014.

In Belgium, arguably the institutional heart of Europe, on October 14th a divisive and secessionist Flemish political party, the New Flemish Alliance won local elections in Antwerp, the capital of the Flemish-speaking Flanders region. Across Flanders, the NVA won 20 out of 35 districts. The party’s leader and new Mayor of Antwerp Bart de Wever attacked the institutional status quo and will be seeking greater autonomy for the Flemish-speaking regions.

Catalin Secession Movement: Biggest Threat to Europe Unity, As Well As Spain

Nevertheless, it is in Spain where secessionism may pose the greatest threat both to the country and to Europe as a whole. The crisis has weakened solidarity across Europe, but Spain has been particularly impacted.  The country’s economic growth for over a decade was predicated on a housing and bank lending boom, and the post-2008 housing crash has brought terrible economic and social consequences even to the economically prosperous Catalan region, which accounts for 20% of Spain’s GDP. Unemployment in Catalonia has reached an astonishing 22% - while Spain as a whole now has an unemployment rate of 25%. Catalonia for the first time has had to ask for a €5 billion bailout in August 2012 from Madrid, which itself had to receive a €100 billion package from the EU.

As Spain grapples with its economic crisis, Catalonia, like other regions, has faced drastic cuts to health care and education effected by Madrid. Catalans are upset. Catalonia’s demand for greater taxing and spending powers to confront the region’s fiscal crisis has been rebuffed by Madrid. There is a growing sense among Catalonia’s politicians and citizens that the region would be better off if it could manage its economy independently. Madrid has successfully beaten back separatist movements in the Basque country on different occasions and in Galicia this past October, yet in the current socio-economic climate it appears that the showdown between Madrid and Catalonia may likely become more acrimonious in coming weeks.

Catalan President Artur Mas, who has served as President of Catalonia since November 2010 and represents the Catalan nationalist Convergence and Union (CiU) movement, has upped the ante in the independence debate. Following mass demonstrations in early September in support of independence Mas called snap elections for the Catalan parliament to be held on November 25th.  Polls suggest that a majority of Catalans favor CiU nationalists and would support secession.

Madrid has further inflamed the situation by preemptively stepping in to pass legislation in the first half of October in an attempt to prevent Catalonia from unilaterally holding a referendum on independence.  Mas, in turn has stated that the November 25th regional vote will help determine Catalonia’s position on sovereignty going forward. He further promised that a formal referendum will be held within four years.

As Europe’s leaders continue to debate solutions to the economic dimension of the crisis, and while the social impact of the crisis continues to stalk Europe’s citizens, it appears that Europe is now confronting new and menacing regional political challenges that may threaten the very institutional foundations of Europe’s member states. The threat of Catalan secession from Spain - one of Europe’s wealthiest regions leaving one of Europe’s largest economies - is particularly unsettling, since a likely scenario is that Catalonia will also seek its own EU membership as an independent country. With all the other pressing issues on its plate, the EU could hardly be less prepared to confront such a scenario.



Prof. David Felsen is a professor of international studies at Alliant International University in San Diego, Calf.