Amongst the saltires flying at the independence march in Edinburgh were flags from Flemish Belgium, Catalonia, Sardinia and Venice as European nationalists plan for a mass march in Brussels
The Scottish independence movement’s difficult quest for a victory in next year’s referendum is getting a wider audience on the continent: its Flemish supporters are planning a mass march in Brussels next year to help proclaim “Yes for Scotland.”
As upwards of 20,000 nationalists and independence activists gathered in Edinburgh nine days ago, some 50 to 60 Flemish nationalist campaigners from the Vlaamse Volksbeweging (VVB) coalition were distributing leaflets to promote that march and a pan-European initiative to get one million signatures on a “petition for self determination” sent in to the European Commission.
And Saturday’s march, timed for the 21st to mark the “year to go” before next September’s Scottish independence referendum, became something of a rallying point for other European nationalist, separatist and independence groups.
Each had different motives and perspectives: solidarity for the largest; inspiration and succour for the smallest. And Scotland’s status in the nationalist spectrum too varied, from being the flag-bearer with next year’s ground-breaking referendum, to being second string to Catalonia’s far stronger mass movement.
The Scottish end of the one million signature campaign (organised by a group calling itself the International Commission of European Citizens) was launched there too by the Scottish Independence Convention (SIC).
That number is the trigger for a new European commission process to allow EU citizens to directly call for action enacted under the Lisbon Treaty. (According to this report on the www.neurope.eu website, it is a laborious and technical process, working to strict timetables and verification rules.)
About 250,000 signatures have already been gathered, an SIC spokesman said. On this issue, it is essentially symbolic: in a neat circular argument, the commission is expected to declare independence movements as outside the scope of EU treaties.
Amid the uniformity of hundreds of blue and white saltires were vast fringed red banners from the Venetian La Serenissima republic era with its golden winged lion; the bold black on yellow Flemish lion rampant called the Vlaamse Leeuw or the “lion flag” (a relic of the Crusades); a three-legged Bannera dâ Sicilia of Sicily with its head of Medusa at its centre (reminiscent of the Isle of Man’s three-legged symbol) and the “four Moors” banner of Sardinia (four silhouetted, blindfolded heads transected by a distinctive red on white St George’s cross, funnily enough).
Some, such as the VVB and the small Catalonian campaign Estat Català (now one of a range of civic campaigns groups yet which some 80 years ago had its own army and paramilitaries), said they were there in solidarity and mutual support. Their respective movements are the equals at least of Scotland’s.
That march in Brussels and the petition are designed to give collective, pan-European momentum for the parallel campaigns in Scotland, Catalonia, Flanders and the Basque country and others; it seems those four are the big brother movements of Europe.
Standing alongside the VVB, the right wing, anti-EU Flemish student nationalist group the Nationalistische Studentenvereniging (NSV) with came with the VBB, its supporters wearing identical grey leather students caps and tricolour ribbons, had bought along an expensive long banner proclaiming in Gothic, blackletter script: “Scotland and Flanders, One Struggle: Freedom!”
Bart de Valck, the VVB’s president, said his group was allied to the Scottish Independence Convention, along with others from the Tyrol, the autonomous region of Italy, Catalonia and the Basque country.
The Brussels march and petition is designed to pressurise the EU into amending European treaties, to embed a right to self-determination within the Union. This to counter the resistance of current Commission president Jose Manual Barroso to both Scottish and Catalan independence; Barroso insists any region or area of an existing member state which declares independence will then leave the EU, and must reapply.
De Valck said the VBB’s first goal was to achieve a federal Belgium, dividing it into a Flemish state and Walloon state:
The political debate is about more devolution.. the purpose is to get independence for Flanders but the process is slowly towards federation.
We’re here to support the Scottish independence movement because we know very well that Europe is going to change, and that all these states were formed in the 19th century by [royal] weddings. That has passed. We know many people want to get out of these unions that they didn’t choose. We think that self-determination is the best form of democracy.
Bouyant from yet another vast march in Barcelona earlier this month, De Valck said Catalonia is giving the greatest hope to Europe’s separatist causes, rather than Scotland, despite Salmond’s domestic success and next year’s referendum (a first in Europe):
I think at this time that Catalonia is the most important region in Europe because they’re the strongest in numbers. The last manifestation [march] was 1.6m people who gathered together in Barcelona; it’s unbelievable.
It’s the motor of the Spanish economy, just like Flanders is the motor the Belgian economy; 60% of our exports are from Flanders.
De Valck was wearing a kilt bought in Edinburgh for last year’s independence march. Asked which tartan it was, he said: “I haven’t the slightest idea.” His colleague Paul van Cappellen noted with a smile: “We bought it from a Paki shop.”
There were also more than a dozen from the Raixe Venete cultural association from Venice, one of the scores of autonomist, separatist and pro-independence groups in Italy, where some in the Veneto area such as the Liga Nord are on the far right of the political spectrum.
Ivan Carollo, one of its members, said it was not a political party, but a cultural group; it publishing a paper. Scotland’s independence movement was part of a continuum covering Catalonia, Corsica, Venice and the Basque country, he said in halting English.
We support the liberation of Scotland: a new nation in Europe.
Waving a vast Venetian banner, some shouted: “Venezia – freedom” as the marchers gathered; in an echo, the Sicilians shouted: “Sicilia – libera”.
But there were other far smaller groups on their country’s political fringes looking for succour: a Sardinian independence party called Sardignia Natzione Indipendentzia (SNI) and that tiny Sicilian outfit doing the chanting, called the National Liberation Movement for the People of Sicily (MLNPS).
The MLNPS was in Geneva recently to file a petition with the United Nations appealing for Sicily’s right to self-determination. It appears they have minimal support in Sicily, however, with no political representation.
Its president Rosa Cassata, again in hesitant English, said they were in Edinburgh
for freedom for Scotland, for ‘yes’ of Scotland and for independent Sicilia. Sicily is not Italy.
A campaigner with the SNI, John Loi, an airline pilot with very good English and real fluency in the Nato phonetic alphabet, said:
We’re here first to give support to the Scottish people and for the Scottish idea of independence because this is the same ideology we have, so we’re like brothers. We all support this positive idea for the Scottish people, this idea of emancipation.
He candidly acknowledged the independence cause is a minority one in Sardinia: there are six independence parties and his attracts around to 6 to 7% support in elections. It has one elected politician to its devolved regional assembly, Claudia Zuncheddu. Sardinians may identify with their native language, Sardish, but not many vote to leave Italy entirely.
Juggling a conversation in several languages, Loi helped an interview with Jordi Miro, of Estat Catalan, who, he said, helped organise the mass march in Barcelona.
Unlike de Valck from the VBB, Miro sees Scotland’s independence movement as the frontrunners. Next year’s legally-watertight mutually agreed referendum is the defining difference, he said:
Catalonia numerically presently is bigger but on the question of independence, Scotland is ahead. For the laws [allowing a referendum], Catalonia doesn’t have this. The Scottish law is ahead.
Maybe the UK is more democratic than the Spanish government. It’s more opened its eyes.
Despite the spread of pro-independence groups in Europe, few have any direct contact with either Yes Scotland said Blair Jenkins, chief executive of that official pro-independence campaign, nor the SNP and the Scottish government.
After years asserting its inclusive, anti-racist credentials, the SNP is deliberately careful about seeking explicit alliances with other European nationalist parties; it can be tricky navigating the different ethnic, political and regional ideologies and policies of other countries.
Writing in the Telegraph after the march, Andrew Gilligan alleged that some senior figures in the VVB are closely aligned with far right, Islamophobic Belgian nationalist groups, reporting academics warning that Flemish politics is freighted with ethnic nationalism of a far more exclusive nature that Scotland’s open-handed civic nationalism.
Another of its allies, say anti-racist campaigners, is the NSV group standing alongside the VVB beside St Giles cathedral.
Speaking as the march stopped outside the Scottish government’s headquarters at St Andrew’s House, Nicola Sturgeon, the deputy first minister, said:
I think what’s happening in Scotland is pretty unique to Scotland. Yes there are other movements in Europe, but no two independence movements are the same and I think it’s really important that they’re seen in their own circumstances and contexts.
I’m not saying there are no common themes around decentralisation and bringing decision-making closer to the people affected, but we can’t draw parallels between Scotland and Catalonia.
The Edinburgh agreement, the legal deal between the UK and Scottish governments establishing the referendum, was a template for other movements:
I think we do provide a shining example of how to allow a country to take a decision on its constitutional future consensually and democratically.
The main contact for European groups is with the Scottish Independence Convention, an unaligned group set up long before Yes Scotland, which has deliberately forged alliances on the continent with some of the larger campaigns.
It is directly involved in the one million signatures campaign and next spring’s march in Brussels, said Chris White, the convention’s international liaison officer.
We believe in a democratic Europe, one that listens and responds to the voice of its citizens. Next March we will deliver the signatures and we will, as one, express a very clear message that we want to see the democratic right, and as importantly respect of, self-determination enshrined within the European framework.
The SIC, he insisted, has “no truck” with right wing doctrines:
As a group we condemn in the strongest possible terms any racist or xenophobic attitudes wherever they may come from, these types of attitudes have no place in our society’
The SIC has no links with political parties outside Scotland, we believe in a more democratic Europe, one that respects fundamental human rights such as the right to self-determination.
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