Here's one possible, unexpected result of Europe's austerity regime: secession.
With the European Union's fragile unity under threat, centuries-old separatist movements are gaining new momentum, most notably in Scotland, Catalonia and Flanders. Whether or not they succeed in redrawing the map of Europe, their resurgence will certainly complicate things for the leaders trying to hold it all together.
Scotland sets the stage
Scottish nationalists have been agitating for independence ever since the Act of Union in 1707 made Scotland part of the United Kingdom. English history tends to portray the act as a magnanimous gesture to help Scotland. Many Scots disagree, believing they were betrayed by their nobles who were, in the words of a nationalist anthem, "bought and sold for English gold".
The growing popularity of the Scottish National Party (SNP) in recent years culminated last spring in a landslide win in Scotland's autonomous parliament. Now, Scottish first minister Alex Salmond and British prime minister David Cameron have agreed to the terms of a 2014 referendum, in which Scots will be asked whether they want to become a fully independent nation.
Aside from the ancient cultural sentiment of Celtic nationhood, Salmond's party is promoting the idea of independent Scotland as a wealthier, healthier and greener alternative to the UK. That vision sees access to the North sea oil and gas resources that lie off Scotland's coast, and ample funding for the education, health and transport services that have been slashed across the UK under Cameron's Conservative government.
Whether that rosy future can be realised is far from clear. Questions about Scotland's share of the UK sovereign debt, access to those oilfields and the UK's huge nuclear submarine base in Scotland are just a few of the tough issues that would have to be worked out. Also up for grabs: whether an independent Scotland would belong to the EU.
Recent polls show support for Salmond's SNP is strong, but only about 40% of Scots favour full independence. Cameron, who wants the UK to stay intact, may have scored a decisive point when he got Salmond to agree to remove a third option, the so-called "devo max", from the referendum. That popular middle way would have granted more independence for Scotland, but not full nationhood.
Can 1.5 million Catalans be wrong?
Catalonia is one of Spain's wealthiest regions, and that's a major factor behind the current push for independence. Catalonia gets back from Madrid just 57 cents of every euro in taxes it sends to the national government – what some Catalans call "fiscal looting." As services are cut to the bone in Spain's severe austerity budgets, Catalans are increasingly resentful of seeing their money go to poorer regions.
There are cultural issues as well. Like other regions of Spain, Catalonia was absorbed into the kingdom of Spain in the 18th century, gradually losing its distinctive laws and customs, and seeing its language subjugated to Spanish. But now, Catalan is once again widely taught in the schools and Catalan flags fly high.
Last month, 1.5 million people turned out to march for independence for Catalonia, and to oppose budget cuts made by Madrid. The massive outpouring of support stoked a fire that nationalist regional leader Artur Mas hopes to fan into a referendum on independence, much like Scotland's. In fact, Scotland's impending vote is seen by Catalan nationalists as a model and test balloon for their own cause.
The centre-right government of Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy is pouring cold water on the idea, claiming there is no provision in the constitution for secession. Given the dire state of Spain's national finances, even a proposal to reduce Catalonia's tax transfers to Madrid is considered a nonstarter by the Rajoy government. But Mas is not daunted – after all, it's tough to ignore over a million people in the streets.
The 'three Belgiums'
Belgium's convoluted history has left it as a nation divided, comprised of two very distinct regions: French-speaking Wallonia and Dutch-speaking Flanders. Belgium gained independence from the Netherlands in 1830, just a few decades after being taken from Napoleon's France. And the push and pull between the two cultures has never really ended.
Starting in the 1960s, the two regions have been increasingly separated legally, culturally and linguistically. Up until the 1970s, the industrialised Wallonia was wealthier and politically more powerful than Flanders. Now the roles have reversed, with the prosperity of Flanders increasing as Wallonia's coal and steel industries continue to decline.
Like the Catalans, the Flemings are increasingly resentful of seeing their tax money go to the poorer Wallonia. Tussling over how to divide power and taxes between the regions led to a political stalemate that left Belgium without a national government for 18 months, an embarrassment (and world record) that ended just last December.
The recent election of a Flemish nationalist as the mayor of Antwerp, Belgium's largest, has put new wind in the sails of the movement. That win for Bart de Wever's NVA party marks a pivot to the mainstream for the separatist movement. In the past, the parties in favour of Flemish separatism were considered peripheral, being further to the right and xenophobic.
Among the many thorny issues raised by this burgeoning separatist movement is Brussels. Although the city sits firmly in Flanders, by law it represents a third, officially bilingual section of the country. Add in the fact that it also happens to be the capital of the EU, and houses many European agencies and NGOs, and you can see that the Flemings getting a separate national homeland is going to be a tall order.
Can the centre hold?
Are these separatist movements – and there are more – going to make life even more difficult for European leaders, struggling with teetering economies? It seems so.
Putting aside for now the arguments each region makes for going it alone, it's hard to see how any changes in sovereignty could not destabilise an already shaky EU.
It's also striking to see the attitudes of people in wealthier regions, who feel unfairly tapped to help their poorer countrymen. Just as many Germans don't want to bail out the Greeks, it seems Flemings feel the same way about Walloons and Catalans about Extremadurans.
At least part of this is down to the failures of Europe's leaders to convince their citizens they are acting in their best interests; and that by working together they will all be stronger. Much of the blame here must lie with their dogged attachment to the disastrous policy of austerity. The needless suffering imposed by round after round of cuts, causing joblessness, poverty and fear to soar, is undeniably playing a role in pitting countries and classes against each other.
Of course history, language and culture all feed into long-held desires for regional independence. But the latest economic crisis is further eroding the sense of all being "in it together", too. And if that spirit isn't strong enough to hold long-established nations together, what does that say about the future of Europe's 55-year-old unity project? The continent's leaders need to be bold enough to dump the failed austerity dogma that's pitting European citizens against each other, and come up with fresh ideas that better serve their people. Until that happens, Europe's unity will continue to suffer.
Read more: The Atlantic's Heather Horn looks at the problems of the EU through the lens of the Scottish secession movement.
*Sources: BBC, InCallander, EU Observer, Guardian, Scottish National Party, EurActive, New York Times, Economist, Wikipedia, Independent, Euronews, US State Department, Global Post, Al Jazeera, Reuters, Atlantic*