A big couple of days for Europe’s nationalists

Individual nations inside the EU are suddenly looking very fragile Photo: Reuters/Tobias Schwarz

It’s been quite a couple of days for the nationalists. Scotland’s independence referendum is now a reality and in the diary for 2014, Flemish nationism is on the march in Belgium and a poll in Catalonia suggests that Catalan nationalists will have an outright majority in the regional parliament in Barcelona after the elections there next month.

While we’ve all been worrying about the break-up of the Eurozone, or even of the EU itself, it is individual nations themselves that are suddenly looking very fragile.

To start with the news from Belgium, the New Flemish Alliance has made startling progress in local elections at the weekend.

Their leader, Bart de Wever, is set to become mayor of Antwerp, while his party has won more than 30% of the vote in Flanders, the northern, Flemish-speaking half of Belgium.

New Flemish Alliance leader Bart de Wever Credit: Reuters/Francois Lenoir

Belgium has always been a slightly shaky coalition between the Flemish in the north and the French-speaking Walloons in the south (Brussels is bilingual and belongs to both halves).

Such were the disagreements over language and regional power that Belgium recently had no government at all for more than a year.

Well now the prospect of a formal divorce is on the table, and largely because much wealthier Flanders is fed-up with seeing its money swallowed up by poorer French neighbours.

The same maybe happening in Catalonia and for similar reasons.

It is astonishing how quickly the mood there has turned nationalist, and it may be only a month or so before President Artur Mas has a clear mandate to hold a referendum, which Madrid insists would be illegal and unconstitutional.

Pro-Catalonia independence demonstrators in Barcelona Credit: Reuters/Gustau Nacarino

Whatever the driving force of Scottish nationalism, it is not built on resentment at Scottish pounds being sent to London to support the impoverished south.

But the result may be much the same, and it may create exactly the same headache for the European Union, namely what to do with the arrival of new mini-states that want membership.

In all three cases the nationalist pitch is for "independence within the EU", but the trouble is that none of them would actually be members as a right.

A week or two ago this position was confirmed by the European Commission.

Now they seem to have moved their stance slightly, a spokesman today suggested that Brussels would be neutral as to whether a breakaway region of an existing member state would automatically remain a member of the union.

The issue has ceased to be theoretical and the Commission may have some very tricky decisions to make in the next few years.

Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond and Prime Minister David Cameron Credit: Gordon Terris/The Herald/PA Wire

Under current rules, it requires unanimity to admit a new member to the club, so Madrid or London could veto an application from either Edinburgh or Barcelona, and indeed Spain has already said it would veto either or both.

But what would be the position with Flanders? If the much bigger region (six million in Flanders versus 3.5 million in Wallonia) broke away, who would get to keep the EU membership?

As in all divorces, it could get very complicated very quickly, and the EU might soon need new rules to deal with it.

Eurocrats in Brussels have long dreamed of a "Europe of the Regions" that took powers from national governments and split them between Brussels and the regions.

It may be about to happen, but not quite in the form they had imagined, not least because newly-independent nations that have successfully wrested powers back from a distant capital may not be enthusiastic about handing them straight over to Brussels.

More on this story