Regionalist movements come in many forms and sizes and, depending on the country, can be led by small political parties or by regional governments themselves. Among eurozone members, regional tensions have been particularly evident in countries under great economic stress, such as Spain, Belgium and Italy. But even in Germany — which has the biggest economy in the eurozone — the crisis is magnifying the country's regional divides.
Due to Spain's mountainous geography, Spanish regions historically have developed independently and relatively isolated from each other, and Madrid's attempts to solidify control over the regions — such as prohibiting regional languages during Francisco Franco's dictatorship — have been greeted with resistance. But when democracy was restored in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Spain established a delicate constitutional balance, in which Spanish regions received varying degrees of autonomy.
The highest degree of autonomy was granted to the Basques. The Spanish Constitution of 1978 recognized the Basque people as a "nationality," created the autonomous communities of Basque Country and Navarre (with Spanish and Basque made co-official languages in both regions) and allowed them to collect their own taxes. This helped reduce Basque nationalism and deter militant groups such as ETA that formed when Franco held power. In Basque Country, regional political parties have willingly worked with Spain's two dominant national parties — the People's Party and the Spanish Socialist Workers' Party — and the first non-regionalist government in the Basque Country was formed in 2009. The dynamic between regional and national parties suggests that the region is politically stable.
By comparison, Catalan nationalism has been exacerbated by the European crisis. As with Basque Country and Navarre, the 1978 constitution recognized Catalan as a nationality and created the autonomous region of Catalonia. However, the region was not granted the same authority as other autonomous communities to collect its own taxes and spend them at its discretion. Catalonia is the wealthiest region in Spain — it accounts for more than 20 percent of Spanish gross domestic product — and it believes that what it contributes to the Spanish state outweighs the benefits it receives. But despite its wealth, Catalonia is also one of Spain's most indebted regions.
After winning elections in November 2011, the conservative government of Mariano Rajoy tightened the central government's control over regional budgets, generating considerable resistance in Catalonia and leading to a political crisis. While separatist sentiment has grown in Catalonia, serious questions remain about the economic consequences of secession and the inevitable exit from the European Union. Moreover, Catalans themselves are divided on the issue; a poll in late September found that 43 percent supported full statehood while 41 percent opposed it. In this context, the most likely outcome is that Catalonia will moderate its demands for independence and focus instead on gaining greater autonomy over taxation.
The consolidation of Italy as a nation-state is a relatively new phenomenon. Before 1861, the Italian Peninsula was a collection of small kingdoms, principalities and duchies, often controlled by foreign powers. Like Spain, geography has contributed to historical Italian fragmentation; the country is divided by mountains and includes the two largest islands in the Mediterranean.
Thus, politically and economically, Italy can be explained in terms of the developmental differences between its north and south. The northern regions around the Po River Valley are some of the richest of Europe and represent Italy's financial and industrial center. The south has traditionally been agriculture-based and ignored by the north in terms of infrastructure and investment. Due to these geographical and economic divides, numerous separatist movements have emerged in Italy since the mid-1800s — both in the north and the south. However, none of these movements ever achieved sufficient political support to pose a real threat to the Italian state.
Still, the economic crisis has exacerbated Italy's divisions. In July, for example, Sicily received a loan of more than 400 million euros ($522 million) from the central government to help pay salaries and pensions. The island subsequently became the focus of sharp criticism throughout the country — but especially among northern media outlets and politicians — due to the huge size of Sicily's public sector and continual scandals involving mismanagement and corruption. Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti has also expressed concern about the situation in Sicily.
In the past two decades, the north-south divide has been exploited most notably by the Northern League, a political party that is especially strong in the northern regions of Veneto and Lombardy. The party has sometimes advocated for northern secession, but it primarily advocates the consolidation of fiscal federalism and greater autonomy for the regions. However, the Northern League is currently in crisis due to several recent corruption scandals that have cost it a considerable amount of public support. No political party has taken the Northern League's place in demanding greater northern autonomy, and, despite the prevalent anti-southern rhetoric, no major Italian party is advocating any sort of real separatism.
Modern Belgium was created in 1830 essentially as a buffer state between Europe's superpowers — France, Germany and the United Kingdom. As a result, the country is inherently fractured and consists of three highly distinct communities: Wallonia, in the south, is mainly French-speaking and has historical ties with France. The Flemish-speaking communities in the northern region of Flanders share historical ties with the Netherlands. A small German-speaking community lives in the east near the German border.
The Belgian political system was designed to establish a balance of power between the communities. However, Flemish access to the North Sea and traditional trade routes with the Low Countries — the Netherlands, Luxembourg and parts of northern France and western Germany — have made it more economically dynamic than the Walloon south. This has created social and economic tensions between the two regions. In recent times, the differences have also become political. While Wallonia tends to vote for center-left parties, Flanders recently has leaned toward conservative parties. This makes consensus at the national level difficult.
Flemish nationalism is not a homogeneous movement. Broadly speaking, there are moderate factions that seek to protect the Flemish language and culture and calls for greater regional autonomy, including the possible replacement of the current federal state with a confederation marked by regional fiscal and judicial autonomy. Some of the Flemish mainstream parties, including the Christian-Democratic and Flemish Party, subscribe to this view. Other factions, however, are demanding full independence for the region. These factions also vary. The euroskeptic and nationalist Vlaams Belang party, for example, combines Flemish separatism with anti-immigration rhetoric, while the New Flemish Alliance proposes an institutional reform that would lead to a gradual separation between Flanders and Wallonia over the long run.
The economic crisis has intensified Belgium's divides, and the New Flemish Alliance has gained support in recent elections. But the party's growth has also exacerbated its own internal splits. Some members still call for full independence, while others propose a gradual separation between Flanders and Wallonia. Thus, Flemish governments are likely to press for more autonomy in the coming years, especially if the European crisis is prolonged. While an agreement on a confederal system is likely, full independence will likely not occur in the medium term.
Separatist forces are weaker in Wallonia. While most political parties defend the French language and Walloon culture, only the Rassemblement Wallonie France (a small party that operates both in Wallonia and Brussels) openly proposes the secession of the region and the union with France.
Similar to Italy, the political unification of Germany is a relatively recent event. Before 1871, Germany was a collection of principalities and independent cities. Although these entities shared a common language and similar cultures, they developed long traditions of autonomy. After World War II, Germany was again divided and ruled by radically different political and economic systems. Modern Germany consists of 16 federal states represented at the Bundesrat, one of Germany's two federal legislative bodies. Each German state has its own constitution and is largely autonomous in areas such as health, education and public services.
In Germany, tensions among states tend to take place at the economic level. This is partly due developmental difference among the states that belonged to West Germany and those that belonged to East Germany. Western states are generally wealthier. Moreover, Germany's richest states border the Danube and Rhine rivers, and the commercial and industrial activities related to these rivers have made states such as Bavaria, Baden-Wuerttemberg and Hesse some of the wealthiest regions in Europe. As a result, the wealthier states tend to believe that they contribute more than their fair share to the country.
The economic crisis has magnified these sentiments. In July, for example, the governments of Bavaria and Hesse questioned the legality of Germany's financial redistribution system, a constitutional system that seeks to generate equal standards of living for all the country's regions. Both states are net contributors to the system and are looking to reduce their contributions by renegotiating the 2005 interpretation of the mechanism. The issue is likely to be decided at the German Constitutional Court.
Still, despite these issues, the overall political unity of the country is not at stake. Germany may be defined by strong regional identities, but no major regional political party has called for anything nearing secession.