It set a trend, but the Crimean referendum has the discussion on separatism tittering away. As ever, the narrative of the national compact, bound by mystical unity and statehood, powers the narrative, while separatist movements seek to draw parallels and sketch contrasts. Movements from as far as Catalonia in Spain and Scotland in the UK have taken heed of the referendum. The Spanish case is significant – Spain, along with four other European Union members, have not recognised Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence from Serbia.
Crimea’s new information minister, Dimitry Polonsky, was happy to throw some fuel on the simmering flames of secession across Europe. “It’s the same situation as we will see in Scotland and then Catalonia. So Crimea is the first and we will be happy to share our experiences with them” (Irish Times, March 19).
Catalan officials have been on the defensive after the Crimean vote. The desire for independence there, they have argued, can hardly be compared to the heavy handed engineering that took place in Crimea. There was no case of Putin moving his forces into place before the force of the ballot. “The basic difference,” suggests Alfred Bosch, congressional deputy for the Catalan Republican Left party, “is that you can’t compare a process that’s about bullets with a process that’s about ballots. We don’t have any weapons here in Catalonia.” But there is, however, no love lost with Madrid, and the Crimean temptation, by way of comparison, remains strong.
Mariano Rajoy and the central authorities have argued that the referendum vote in Catalonia will be unconstitutional. Such moves have gotten the Catalan premier, Artur Mas, into a state. “We can’t rule out a unilateral declaration [of independence]. It is not our ideal framework, or the best, or that which we would like. But we cannot rule it out.” Alicia Sánchez-Camacho, leader of the Spanish government’s conservative Popular Party, responded that, in making a “unilateral declaration of independence, they are taking the Crimean route.”
In the UK, the public relations crews have been busy at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office attempting to correct misapprehensions that the Scottish vote was tantamount to a Crimean solution. For one thing, the referendum in Scotland had been agreed to by all parties for September 18, and all had been free to put forth a case.
Whatever the whizzes of the FOC do, the reality remains significant: should Scotland say yes to separating from the UK, Cameron’s government will find a nuclear submarine base in foreign territory, and a Union short of five million subjects. (Whether London will breathe a sigh of relief to be rid of those pesky Scots is quite another matter.) The punters are against the Scottish Nationalists on this point. Polls suggest that 35 per cent of the population are with the secessionists. Nor will Cameron exactly be rushing to nullify the vote. “There is no law there,” claims Alexey Gromyko, acting director of the Institute of Europe, “that prohibits any of the regions from conducting a referendum” (VOA, March 19).
In Italy, a country always tenuously united, northern separatists cheered the Crimean experiment. Matteo Salvini of the Northern League celebrated the result, having decided on becoming the league’s head last year that Italy would have to break-up. His dream is the secession of a regional collective called Padania that would involve Lombardy, Piedmont and Veneto. “Viva the referendum in Crimea and the freedom of citizens.”
Salvini is the sort of politician who never hides from promoting his vision of Europe, a more decentred version that puts nationalism and individual autonomy of groups ahead of centralism and the shackles of Euro politics. In fact, he has termed the Euro a veritable “crime against humanity.” For that reason, he keeps company with other Europeanists of the far right, notably France’s Front National. His view of the EU is fashionable in some quarters. “In Brussels there are criminals in jackets and ties” (The Independent, December 16, 2013).
Some of Salvini’s wishes are being pursued. An under-reported referendum is taking place in wealthy Veneto, which become part of Italy in 1866. The online referendum was launched on Sunday, the very day that Crimean residents went to the polls. Voting closes on Friday. In the words of Lodovico Pizzati, spokesman for the independence movement, there was “a huge gap between what we pay in taxes and what we receive as public service. We are talking about a difference of 20 billion euro.” The leader of the referendum push, Gianluca Busato, is also on about the culture, claiming that “we have never felt fully Italian, as we have our own culture and traditions.”
Much of these disputes about identity also suggests the ludicrous stances that take place in separatist politics, notably from external powers that have a nasty habit of sponsoring one position over another. Will the sanction brigades come out in full force if Catalonia frees itself from the Spanish embrace? Will sanctions be applied to cheeky Veneto if it leaves the Roman orbit? Unlikely, which only serves to show how the double standard is fundamental when it comes to such debates. Keeping people in families by force or by ballot remains one of history’s great dilemmas. The response is rarely satisfactory.