COVID-19, the Spring of European Independence Movements

On March 15, the day of the first round of French municipal elections, Corsican independence movement paled. For the first time, the unionist right won an absolute majority of votes in the Corsican capital, Ajaccio—without any of the four nationalist lists getting more than 13% of the votes. In Bastia, the second city of the island, the separatist mayor was going into the second round in an unfavourable position.

As a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, the second round could not take place until the pandemic was brought more under control in June. The result was quite different: Bastia was finally reconquered by the pro-independence parties, ten points ahead of the unionist coalition. A restored unity offered the autonomists even more cities than they had accomplished in their 2014 historic victory. Two weeks later, it was the turn of the Basque and Galician separatists to foil the polls and establish themselves as the main beneficiaries of their regional elections. Meanwhile, opinion polls of recent months are giving Scottish independence a never-before-seen lead. How to explain this separatist rebound in Western Europe?

The evidence of a rally around the flag has been one of the most noticeable socio-political effects of the pandemic’s first wave. In the spring, almost all executive governments in Europe received a boost in popularity: in Denmark, Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen’s (S-S&D) approval rating jumped 40 points. In Germany, Angela Merkel’s centre-right Christian Democratic Union (Christlich Demokratische Union Deutschlands, CDU-EPP) rose between March and May from 24% to 40% of voting intentions, while it was on a downward slope at the start of the year. Even in Spain, the country on the continent where the government’s management of the pandemic was judged the worst according to an Eurobarometer poll, the governing centre-left Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (Partido Socialista Obrero Español, PSOE-S&D) gained a few points at the height of the crisis.

This phenomenon has had the particularity of being applied to governments at both state and regional levels. In Bavaria, the approval rating of the regional head of government Markus Söder (CSU-EPP) reached 94% in April, an all-time high in Germany. This momentum even seems to have benefitted regional authorities more than national ones. In regions where power is shared between the central state and a local government, it is the latter level that seems to have most often benefitted from this boost. In Italy, the regional elections of September 21 were marked by the triumph of outgoing presidents who have been noted for their good management of the epidemic. In Veneto and Campania, the coalitions of Luca Zaia (Lega-ID) and Vincenzo de Luca (PD-S&D) were triumphantly reelected, achieving the two biggest results ever recorded in regional elections. Their performances swept away the momentums experienced in recent weeks by FdI (ECR) or by Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte (*) and his governing coalition.

Conversely, the Flemish pro-independence New Flemish Alliance (Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie, N-VA-ECR) does not seem to suffer from its cricitised management of the epidemic as one of the governing party in Flanders, while none of the Belgian autonomous parties have regressed in voting intentions. The discontent is expressed less as a punishment vote against the separatist political forces than with more specific demands, such as the re-centralisation of powers in the area of public health—which is now acclaimed by 86% of Flemish people, according to an Grand Baromètre-Ipsos poll. Furthermore, the request to re-centralise responds more to a feeling of ineffectiveness on the part of the public authorities than to a deeper rejection of federalism. Thus, if more than seven out of ten Belgians wish to see the nine ministries of health spread over the country be grouped together in a single large ministry in Brussels, the opinions are way more nuanced with regard to other areas of competence.

The above-presented trend in favour of regionalist movements is not surprising. As we have seen, it is local withdrawal and isolationist reflexes that prevailed during the epidemiological wave. A large majority of European citizens have adopted a silo mentality in the face of a threat often seen as distant: at the height of the crisis, almost all the states of the continent had re-established their borders. It is not surprising that the most local responses to the epidemic stood out—especially in states where the divide between center and periphery is as deep as it is in the United Kingdom or Spain. This doesn’t necessarily mean Basque or Welsh people suddenly turned into lovers of border controls; but the pandemic has emphasised a stronger desire to have that option.

Support for Scottish independence, for instance, has reached historic levels in recent months. Nicola Sturgeon’s handling of the crisis was judged to be much more reassuring and compassionate than that of the distant London. At the end of May, Ipsos MORI estimated its net approval rating in the crisis management at +74 points, while Boris Johnson’s one was at -25. What could be more effective in convincing Unionist supporters of Scotland’s ability to do better without the tutelage of Downing Street?

Same story in Spain, where the cleavage between Madrid and regional governments was revived at the start of the crisis by the Sánchez (PSOE-S&D) government itself, with the forced re-centralisation of certain regional powers. This was a breathtaking miscalculation: under fire for its handling of COVID-19, the Spanish government failed to pick up part of the separatist electorate. Worse still, Madrid left the door open for the autonomist parties to gather the punishment votes against the ruling parties. This opportunity was fully exploited by pro-independence EH Bildu (GUE/NGL) and the Galician Nationalist Bloc (Bloque Nacionalista Galego, BNG-G/EFA), who both made strong breakthroughs in the regional elections in July.

It must be said that this role of catalyst for discontent suits the independence parties perfectly: the essentially constitutional character of their struggle allows them a certain ideological flexibility in economic and social matters. It is thus easier for them to adapt to the political climate. EH Bildu, for example, has made a discursive turn since the arrival in power of the left, by placing at the heart of its program themes hitherto little mentioned, such as ecology or feminism. This enabled the party to receive the votes of many voters who were disappointed with the government’s action in these fields, especially by PSOE’s coalition partner, left-wing Podemos (GUE/NGL).

However, the consistency of this progression must be questioned. In the Basque Country as in Galicia, no opinion poll had predicted such a breakthrough by the separatist parties: for the BNG as for Bildu, the outperformance, compared to the most optimistic surveys, was 3 or 4 points. A non-negligible part of their progress therefore seems to be based on the voters who made up their minds in the very last moments of the campaign. The volatility of this last-minute electorate, often casting protest or default votes rather than actively supportive ones, is quite strong—and nothing for the moment indicates its durability for the secessionist camp.

In Corsica too, the transfer of votes between the first and the second round was extremely favorable for the nationalists. But they too seem to have greatly benefited from a punishment vote against the unionist political system, which is considered as aging and was often questioned for its management of the epidemic. Doubts persist as to the real state of form of the separatist movement since its victory in the 2017 territorial elections.

Moreover, the benefit of an autonomist momentum seems to be greatly dependent on the pre-existence of an audible independence movement. In France, Alsatian separatism has absolutely not been heard about during the still-ongoing health crisis, even though the region was one of the most affected on the continent by the epidemic’s first wave. Despite the 10% gathered by the particularist coalition in the last regional elections in Alsace, the movement suffers from a serious media and leadership deficit. The same goes in Italy: if several regional executives experienced a momentum during the crisis, no independence movement seems to have recovered for the moment, in the North as in the South. This underlines the persistent weakness of separatist parties, which, most of the time, struggle to implant their ideas and to impose themselves other than as an alternative—their existence outside marginality depending on the usual parties’ performance.

Finally, there is the Catalan case. In addition to the epidemic, local political life has been particularly eventful in recent months, including the dissolution of the ruling pro-independence coalition and the consequent calling of early elections at the end of the year. Nevertheless, lines didn’t shift in the polling. It must be said that the divide between Madrid and Barcelona has been omnipresent in Catalan politics since 2017: most of the time, opinions are already clearly coloured with one or another. Still, the epidemic has not changed the situation beyond measure—but the start of the electoral campaign may be a game-changer in the coming weeks.

The autonomist movements seem, as a whole, to have benefitted from the first wave’s political climate. But the direct effect of this breakthrough remains limited in its scope and dependent on many other factors. Yet, limiting the impact of this crisis on the independence movements to a simple electoral momentum, whatever its magnitude, would be a mistake. Rather, it is a window of opportunity. As we have seen, the epidemic brought with it fresh stakes, against the backdrop of political localism and rejection of globalisation. So many spaces which, if properly exploited, can be even more fertile for regional particularisms.

Corsican nationalists were the first to opt for a renewed discourse. Gone are the identitarian watchwords, yet historical spearheads of their struggle. They have been focusing for a few weeks on economic and social claims linked to the post-COVID years, with a stimulus plan and universal income in mind—the deaf ear of Paris to the socio-economic specificity of the island justifying, from a different perspective, the separatist claims. Although the risk is great, there is no doubt that this recipe can bear fruit; but next summer is still far away.

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