For Kurt Ryon, the mayor of Steenokkerzeel, a Flemish village 16km northeast of Brussels, watching the Scottish independence campaign in the final days before the referendum is like watching a good game of soccer.
“They were losing for the first half and most of the second half, but now we’re in the 85th minute and they could be winning,” Ryon said.
Ryon, who wants his native Flanders to split from Belgium, is rooting for Scotland to do the same from the UK and like a faithful soccer fan he has all the gear — a T-shirt from the Scottish pro-independence “yes” campaign, a collection of “yes” pins on his denim jacket and copious amounts of a beer specially brewed by Flemish nationalists to express their solidarity. The label says “Ja!” next to a Scottish flag, Flemish for yes.
From Catalonia to Kurdistan to Quebec, nationalist and separatist movements in Europe and beyond are watching the Scottish independence referendum closely — sometimes more so than Britons themselves, who seem to have only just woken up to the possibility that Scotland might vote on Thursday to bring to an end a 307-year union.
A curious collection of left and right, rich and poor, marginal and mainstream, these movements are united in the hope that their shared ambition for more self-determination will get a lift from an independent Scotland.
In the separatist-minded Basque Country, an autonomous community in northern Spain, the leader of the governing nationalist party has been known to dress up in a Scottish kilt and jokes that Basques would rather be part of an independent Scotland than remain part of Spain, which has ruled out any kind of vote.
In Veneto, a region of northern Italy, nationalists have held a Scottish-inspired online referendum and now claim that nine in 10 inhabitants want autonomy.
Busloads of Catalans, South Tiroleans, Corsicans, Bretons, Frisians and “Finland-Swedes” are headed for Scotland to witness the vote. Even Bavaria (which calls itself “Europe’s seventh-largest economy”) is sending a delegation.
“It would create a very important precedent,” said Naif Bezwan of Mardin Artuklu University in the Kurdish part of Turkey.
Across the Iraqi border (“the Kurdish-Kurdish border,” as Bezwan puts it), where a confluence of war, oil disputes and political turmoil has renewed the debate about secession, Kurds pine for the opportunity of a Scottish-style breakup.
“Everyone here is watching,” said Hemin Lihony, the Web manager at Rudaw, Kurdistan’s largest news organization, based in Erbil, Iraq.
History offers few examples of nations splitting up in a consensual way. The velvet divorce between the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993 is one, the Norwegian referendum on independence from Sweden in 1905 another, but mostly, nation states go to war over their borders.
The US fought a civil war to preserve the union. Turkey fought Kurdish nationalists for decades and still denies them the right to Kurdish-language education. Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia — a status still not recognized by some countries — only after a war in the 1990s.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, who annexed Crimea in March after a stealth invasion and a referendum there, and who has been accused of aggressively aiding separatists in eastern Ukraine, has happily supported Scotland’s independence bid, but his attachment to self-determination is highly selective — in the Russian republics of Chechnya and Dagestan he has deployed savage force to crush Muslim separatists seeking to break from Russia.
In some cases, the referendum in Scotland is fueling new hopes, however improbable, among separatist fringe groups. When the president of the Texas Nationalist Movement, Daniel Miller, was invited to the University of Stirling in Scotland this year, he said the Scots were paving the way for an independent Texas.
“Scottish independence is a study in the very same debates that will take place in Texas ahead of the binding referendum on independence that is in our future,” Miller said.
In others, it is re-energizing long-running debates with considerable geopolitical importance. In Taiwan, some hope that a Scottish “yes” vote could trigger a more careful deliberation over the nation’s future.
Wang Dan (王丹), an exiled Chinese dissident who was one of the student leaders in the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests in Beijing, wrote in a recent column for the Apple Daily: “If the Scottish vote succeeds, it will be worth considering by those who advocate deciding Taiwan’s status through a referendum.”
However, it is in Europe that a Scottish “yes” vote would likely create the largest ripples.
It would be the first time that a member of the EU faces secession by a region eager to become a member in its own right. If Scotland succeeds in negotiating its own membership in the bloc, as even opponents of independence predict that it eventually would, it would suddenly make the prospect of independence seem safer and more attractive elsewhere on the continent, said George Robertson, a former secretary-general of NATO.
“There is a serious risk of a domino effect,” said Robertson, himself a Scot and an opponent of independence.
A “yes” vote, he said, could trigger “the Balkanization of Europe.”
Nationalists, however, say that a bit of Balkanization may be just what Europe needs.
In the slightly dilapidated Brussels office of the European Free Alliance, which groups together 40 parties representing Europe’s “stateless nations,” a busy map shows what Europe would look like if they all became independent.
Francois Alfonsi, the president of the alliance and a proud Corsican, admits that it would be messy, but “democracy is messy and democracy is what Europe needs.”
National self-determination, he said, “is about bringing policies closer to the people.”
Across town, Mark Demesmaeker, a Flemish member of the European Parliament who has decorated his office with a Scottish flag and keeps a copy of the Scottish white paper on independence on his desk, speaks of “failed nation states.”
In his view, the UK has failed to give the Scots and Welsh proper representation in parliament, and Spain has failed to deliver democracy to Catalans and Basques eager to have their own independence vote.
Other nations, such as France and Italy, have been mired in political and economic stagnation. Demesmaeker’s own country, Belgium, cannot even form a government. (Belgium had elections in May and is still deep in coalition talks; the last time it took 541 days.)
Pro-European national movements like his own, the New Flemish Alliance — now the biggest party not just in Flanders, but in all of Belgium — are the best antidote to the far-right, anti-European and anti-immigrant nationalist movements that did so well in European elections earlier this year, he said.
“If Scotland votes ‘yes,’ it will be an eye-opener for many people on the street,” Demesmaeker said. “Most people think it’s our fate to be part of Belgium, but Flanders could be a prosperous nation. It’s a democratic evolution that is going on in different states of the EU. Eventually we want Flanders to take its place in the EU.”
If plenty of nationalists have pledged their solidarity with Scotland, the reverse has been less true. The Scottish referendum takes place just days before the regional government of Catalonia is expected to confirm that it will hold an independence vote of its own on Nov. 9, which would override legal and political objections from Madrid.
Alfred Bosch, a Catalan lawmaker, said his counterparts in Scotland had shown little interest in being associated with events in Catalonia.
The Scots “probably want to distance themselves from anything that they see as not as ripe and as mature as their own process,” Bosch said. “They don’t want to create any hostility from Spain or other countries that might also have pro-independence movements,” not least because those governments will have to recognize an independent Scotland and consider whether to allow it into the EU.
Whatever the outcome of the referendum, many nationalists say Scotland has already won.
“They have the opportunity to decide their own future,” said Andoni Ortuzar, the president of the governing Basque Nationalist Party, who wore a kilt in the 2012 carnival to celebrate the announcement of a Scottish referendum that year. “That’s what national self-determination is. That’s all we ask.”
Additional reporting by Azam Ahmed,Raphael Minder and Austin Ramzy
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