Kosovo situation seen fueling EU nationalists

By Pierre Ausseill, MADRID, AFP

If Kosovo declares independence from Serbia after Monday’s U.N.-set deadline for reaching a settlement has passed, a powerful precedent will be set for separatist movements across Europe, from Spain to Scotland, observers say. “There is a real risk that the quasi-dogma of the intangibility of borders which has existed since the end of the Second World War will fall,” French political scientist Jean-Yves Camus of the Paris-based IRIS institute told AFP. “This would benefit movements which seek to rewrite the map of Europe based on ethnic, linguistic or cultural criteria,” added Camus, a specialist on separatist movements in Europe. Kosovo’s ethnic majority leaders are widely expected to unilaterally declare independence from Serbia in early 2008 but have vowed not to do so without U.S. and European Union approval. Although the province formally remains part of Serbia, Kosovo has been run by the United Nations and NATO since 1999, when NATO airstrikes ended a Serbian crackdown on ethnic Albanian separatists. Serbia, backed by its ally Russia, opposes Kosovo’s plan and at least four EU nations — Cyprus, Greece, Slovakia and Spain — are reluctant to recognize a unilateral declaration of independence, in part because of the precedent it might set for separatists nearer to home. “In the West, this solution will set off separatists in Europe. Look at Scotland, Catalonia, the Basque Country,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said in an interview published in French newspaper Le Figaro earlier this year. Kosovo’s expected declaration of independence comes at a time when Spain’s northern Basque Country and its wealthy northeastern region of Catalonia have stepped up their demands for more authonomy. Last year Catalan voters overwhelmingly backed a new charter which recognized the region as a “nation” within Spain and grants it enhanced powers in taxation and judicial matters.

As in other separatist regions of Europe like Flanders, the Dutch-speaking northern part of Belgium, and northern Italy, supporters said Catalonia deserved extra powers because it makes a bigger contribution to the economy. The armed Basque separatist group ETA ended a 15-month ceasefire in June while the Scottish National Party, which came to power in May, plans to hold a referendum on independence in 2010. Belgium meanwhile has been without a government for six months after a general election on June 10 highlighted deep divisions between the nation’s majority Dutch-speakers and Francophones. For many nationalists, membership in the 27-nation European Union has only served to make separation seem more viable. “Europe can regulate our functionings and transfer payments. Why must we maintain this intermediate roof we call Belgium,” the leader of the Flemish nationalist party, Bart De Wever, told French daily Le Monde last month. The emergence of similar lifestyles and English as a common language in Europe, combined with the disappearance of borders and the lack of democratic legitimacy of EU bodies, had fueled “the development of microdistinctive identities,” said Camus.