Throughout the course of history, there are few regions in the world whose map has changed as frequently and abruptly as that of Europe. Nowadays, political forces – less violent and bloody than in the past, but equally destructive – are slowly and imperceptibly eroding the borders of several countries. Tensions within states – not enmities among competing powers – are remodelling the political geography of Europe.

Secessionism is on the rise all across Europe, with movements in search of both independence from their central governments and accession to the EU (Bardos 2013). In September, Scots will confirm or reject the 1707 Act of Union with England, whereas in November Catalans will vote in an unauthorized referendum about their independence. Flanders has also been fiercely – but so far unsuccessfully – pushing for a similar ballot. Ironically, these three ripe secessionist movements are challenging ancient, well-established monarchies.

Yet, almost no European country – regardless of the form of government – is immune to subnational mobilisation movements. According to rough estimates, there are 100 groups in 29 countries that are seeking greater autonomy from the central government or self-determination from their motherland. These groups greatly differ in terms of hostility towards the central government, popular support, and – most importantly – readiness for independence. Scotland’s successful withdrawal from the UK might have the unintended consequence of waking up dormant movements and reinforcing those that are already mature.

To many observers, the disintegration forces that characterize Catalonia, Scotland, or Flanders are just the by-products of Europe’s economic despair (Palacio 2012). Competition over shrinking resources fuels conflict among groups that differ in traditional culture and political preferences but are tied together by legal and administrative bonds. While the Eurozone crisis is certainly reinforcing these sub-national movements, the embitterment of regional tensions is due to the structural changes that are taking place underneath the old continent. Globalisation and the deepening of the European project itself are the prime causes.

When nations remove trade barriers among themselves, economic integration reduces the benefits of large jurisdictions and increases the costs of holding together heterogeneous populations (Alesina and Spolaore 2003). Catalans and the Scots, for instance, perfectly understand this logic. They both want access to the larger European market, while unfettering their regions from Madrid or London’s centralized control. In other words, national disintegration or more pressing autonomist requests from local communities might be interpreted as the by-product of the European integration process itself.

Yet, European policymakers are unwilling to accept this economic argument. The former President of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, has recently warned that seceded regions will not be automatically granted EU membership (Barroso 2012). And international lawyers argue that secession in regions that enjoy a great deal of autonomy to promote local culture and historical values is not legally justifiable. European bureaucrats do not want to set a dangerous precedent in a continent that is populated by 250 regions, which are clearly defined by cultural, ethnic, or historical identities.

Regions that today might look stable and calm could suddenly turn into contested territories. For instance, last March, Northeastern Italians unexpectedly voted in an unofficial – and quite fictitious – referendum on Venice’s independence. Even the Crimean referendum, which was not the virtuous outcome of a democratic process, has given hope to the European secessionists. Representatives from both the Flemish and Catalan movements were sent to Crimea to observe the vote.

Irredentist groups – whether ripe or not – are latent, potentially devastating forces, whose destructive power increases over time through deeper economic integration both at the continental and global level. For this reason, national governments should monitor the structural dynamics that are taking place in the old continent, assess their own vulnerabilities and rebalance the often-conflicting interests of the nation state and local communities through new administrative arrangements.

In countries where secessionists are dormant, national governments have many weapons in their arsenal to preserve the status quo. In the least frightening situations, central governments can appease local communities through financial transfers, generous tax arrangements, or power devolution. Many potentially irredentist regions in Italy are kept under control through a variety of administrative devices.

When new concessions are no longer possible, governments can deter subnational groups through political threats. The Spanish government has banned the Catalan referendum and would veto Catalonia’s accession to the EU, whereas the UK government has declared its opposition to sharing sterling with an independent Scotland.

Yet, stubbornly suffocating ripe secessionist groups is unwise. Sooner or later, the irredentist ambitions will abruptly resurface and the political disintegration of the country will be a matter of time. Renegotiating the terms of the relationship is more beneficial than resorting to political threats or, in the most extreme cases, the use of force. A gradual transition is necessary to minimize the economic, political, and administrative costs accruing from the breakup.

An increased political fragmentation at the national level will certainly affect the balance of power within European institutions. But, if secession just involves a handful of regions, an increased number of political actors will not necessarily impair the decision-making process in Brussels. In fact, since small jurisdictions get their lifeblood from a large and well-functioning European market, they might be more willing than larger ones to deepen the degree of economic integration. However, it is in everyone’s interest to avoid a cascade of secessions, prevent an excessive fragmentation, and contain dangerous tensions.

The 20th century opened with two world wars that left indelible scars on the map of Europe. Only the fall of Berlin’s wall helped reabsorb them. In the 21st century, regional democratic movements will replace Great Power politics in redefining Europe’s ever-changing political map.

Published in collaboration with Vox

Author: Edoardo Campanella, Fulbright Scholar, Harvard Kennedy School

Image: England and Scotland stickers are seen as shoppers queue in a sweet shop in Berwick Upon Tweed in Northumberland August 20, 2013. REUTERS/Toby Melville