Changing the look of Europe

With an independent Scotland now a distinct possibility, Will Hodges asks what other nations might try to go it alone

In the 23 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall led to Europe's borders being redrawn, the continent's map-makers have been kept busy. Since 1989, a total of 14 nations have been added to Europe's list of states, most of them resulting from the dissolution of the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. The most recently born of these, Montenegro, came into being in 2006.

Taking the high road

But now it's not eastern Europe that's causing ripples across the continent, but a small, windswept country of five million people nestled in the middle of the North Sea. The country I'm referring to is Scotland, though this territory hasn't enjoyed the status of an independent state since the signing of the Treaty of Union with England in 1707.

Now, however, Scotland wants out. Or at least 30 per cent of it does, for this is the proportion of Scots found to be in favour of independence by the most recent poll. Though this slice of the population doesn't represent the majority Scottish first minister Alex Salmond would like to have on his side, he remains hopeful that the two years leading up to a national referendum on Scottish independence (due to be held in autumn 2014), will be enough time to persuade voters that Scotland should be flying solo.

Should Salmond achieve his aim, Scotland would re-enter the EU as an independent state with full control over its economy and foreign affairs. Speaking at the recent Scottish National Party conference, Salmond began his address to the audience by declaring the United Kingdom a "nonsense", and that the deal agreed with Prime Minister David Cameron on 15 October to hold a 2014 referendum leaves the goal of a fully independent Scotland "within reach".

Events in Edinburgh are being watched with considerable interest from further afield. In Spain, there's speculation that a Scottish breakaway might help the autonomous communities of Catalonia, Galicia and the Basque region to push for increased independence from Madrid. Were Scotland to achieve complete devolution from the United Kingdom, it would provide a valuable precedent for these regions which have fought long and bloody battles for sovereignty. The Basque region's separatist movement will forever be associated with the nationalist group Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA, Basque Homeland and Freedom), whose struggle for independence claimed 829 lives between the 1960s and the signing of a peace accord in 2010. The question of further devolution from Madrid has returned to the fore in recent months thanks to Spain's current economic malaise. The Basque region and Catalonia are two of the richer provinces of Spain and they've resented having to put their hands in their pockets to bail out other parts of a country which many of their inhabitants don't feel fully part of.

Green and pleasant land

Travel several thousand miles to the north and you'll come to the sparsely-populated island nation of Greenland, which has recently been accelerating long-standing efforts to separate itself from its sovereign ruler Denmark. In 2008, 75 per cent of Greenland's 57,000 citizens voted for the transfer of additional power from Denmark to the local Greenlandic government, which was formed in 1979. Their cause has been aided by recent discoveries of considerable oil and mineral wealth beneath Greenland's soil, which might just persuade the islanders to forgo the €400 million a year (£320 million) they currently receive in Danish subsidies in favour of economic independence.

The financial considerations surrounding Greenland's situation have certain parallels with those of Scotland. Like the Greenlanders, the Scottish people will have to weigh up whether a breakaway would leave their country better or worse off economically. In the case of Scotland, the recent financial crisis and recession may have dampened enthusiasm for independence, as Scotland's financial sector has been severely weakened. And being part of the euro may seem less palatable than it once did in the light of the recent turmoil endured by other small member nations such as Greece, Ireland and Portugal. However, the SNP calculates that independence would leave the average Scot £1,000 a year better off and would allow Holyrood to invest more in public services like education and healthcare.

So expect to hear a lot about the Battle of Bannockburn, William Wallace and Rob Roy over the coming months as the SNP attempts to appeal to Scottish national pride in the run-up to the referendum. Meanwhile, the rest of Europe - and its map-makers - will await developments with interest.

Europe's other potential breakaway states

The Faroe Islands

Political status: Self-governing group of islands under the sovereignty of the Kingdom of Denmark. As yet, the country has no plans to declare independence from Denmark.

Population: 50,000

GDP: £1 billion

GDP per capita: £21,000


Political status: Geographic region within the federal state of Belgium.

Population: 6.3 million

GDP: £133 billion

GDP per capita: £21,100


Political status: Declared itself an independent state in 2008, but still only recognised as such by some members of the international community. Parts of the country are still governed by Serbia.

Population: 1.7 million

GDP: £7.5 billion

GDP per capita: £4,100

South Ossetia

Political status: Declared itself separate from Georgia in 1990, but only recognised as an independent republic by a handful of governments.

Population: 72,000

GDP: £9.3 million

GDP per capita: £156


Political status: Declared independence from Republic of Moldova in 1990 but not recognised internationally as an independent nation. Possesses its own government, parliament and currency.

Population: 520,000

GDP: £600 million

GDP per capita: £1,100