Barcelona: with an election tentatively scheduled for autumn, the nationalist space in Catalonia is splintering
Barcelona: with an election tentatively scheduled for autumn, the nationalist space in Catalonia is splintering © Guillem Sartorio/Bloomberg

The writer is a PhD candidate at the University of Sussex

For three European states, the coronavirus pandemic is serving to catalyse pre-existing territorial disputes and empower regional nationalist movements. The UK, Spain and Belgium have each had different responses to Covid-19. Even so, independence movements have gone on the offensive in all three countries.

In the Spanish region of Catalonia, still living in the shadow of the 2017 independence crisis, an early election has loomed since January. Before the pandemic, the left-nationalist Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) party had been exploring a dialogue with the Socialist-led government of Pedro Sánchez, Spain’s prime minister. But this drove a wedge between the ERC and its coalition partner in Catalonia’s government, the more hardline Junts per Catalunya (JxCat) alliance.

JxCat and Quim Torra, Catalonia’s leader, opted for confrontation with Mr Sánchez, calling for a stricter lockdown and claiming that an independent Catalonia would have had a superior response to the health crisis. The ERC's attitude has been more conciliatory, supporting Mr Sánchez's requests for extensions to the state of emergency. But Covid-19 has undermined the ERC's strategy. The party lost its bargaining strength in Spain’s parliament after Mr Sánchez found other allies.

With an election tentatively scheduled for autumn, the nationalist space is splintering. JxCat broke apart after a dispute between one of its main components, the liberal-nationalist Catalan European Democratic party (PDeCAT), and Carles Puigdemont, the former Catalan leader. He has consolidated the rest of the alliance into a new Junts party. Junts will go into the election as the most stridently secessionist of the nationalist parties. It will face the ERC, PDeCAT, the far-left and a new coalition of moderate nationalists. The nationalists will probably retain their majority in Catalonia’s parliament, but their unity, always fragile, has been shattered.

In Belgium, the pandemic has radicalised territorial conflicts. A caretaker government led by Sophie Wilmès was voted into office in March and given powers to manage the crisis. But policymaking is rendered difficult by the gulf between a right-leaning, increasingly secessionist Flanders and a leftist Wallonia that is not interested in more decentralisation. This split has led to disputes at every stage of the lockdown. One unlikely quarrel erupted over the construction of a Brussels bike lane. More significantly, Flemish nationalists refuse to foot the bill for the recovery of less prosperous Wallonia.

Brussels, Belgium: the yawning right-left gulf make it harder to form a lasting federal government
Brussels, Belgium: the yawning right-left gulf make it harder to form a lasting federal government © Olivier Hoslet/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Even before the pandemic, the far-right separatist Flemish Interest led opinion polls in Flanders. The New Flemish Alliance, its nationalist rival, is feeling the heat. Arguing that the split in responsibilities between different levels of state administration has hampered the response to the pandemic, it has published proposals to transform Belgium into a confederation. While these plans are unlikely to bear fruit in the short term, this controversy and the yawning right-left gulf make it harder to form a lasting federal government.

For the UK, the pandemic has been a story of steady divergence between the central government in London and the authorities in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Next year promises to be one of the most consequential in Scotland's modern history as it holds elections with independence on the agenda. To secure a referendum on secession, the pro-independence Scottish National party and Scottish Greens need a comprehensive election victory. They reason that Boris Johnson, the UK prime minister, would have to drop his resistance to a referendum in the face of a convincing democratic mandate.

Covid-19 is boosting the fortunes of the SNP, led by Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister. Control of almost all the policy levers used to tackle the virus has afforded Ms Sturgeon the opportunity to “show not tell” how an independent Scotland would do better.

Some failings of the SNP government, which were showing after 13 years in power, are now overlooked. The party’s support in opinion polls has climbed above 50 per cent, as has voters’ backing for Scotland’s independence. A showdown looms between the independence movement and Mr Johnson.

The pandemic is intensifying debates about the constitutional futures of several European regions. Many on the pro-independence side have been empowered by the crisis, which is highlighting the failings of central governments and underscoring the power of the regions. But the secessionists are divided about the way forward. In Catalonia, and increasingly in Scotland, too, disunity may be what stands between them and their cherished goal of independence. 

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