The specter of secession is haunting Europe. Since 2000 there have been three successful separations from existing states — by Montenegro, Kosovo and Crimea — and at the moment, several other regions are attempting to secede and create independent states. In March, Crimea first seceded from Ukraine and then voted, in a referendum, to rejoin the Russian Federation. At the same time, in an informal online referendum, voters of the Veneto region in northern Italy overwhelmingly favored independence and the restoration of the old Venetian republic. In September, the citizens of Scotland will vote in an independence referendum, and the government of the Spanish region of Catalonia plans to hold a referendum of the same kind two months later — despite a ruling by the Constitutional Court of Spain that such a referendum would be illegal (a similar referendum in the Basque region in 2008 was thwarted by the Spanish government).
Why are these referendums all taking place in 2014? In fact, the Scottish and Catalan votes were planned several years ago, at a time when dissatisfaction with the “host states” among the citizens of these regions was the highest. Spain and Italy were experiencing a series of banking and fiscal crises and increasing unemployment; the Conservative government in the U.K., which had no electoral support at all in Scotland, was introducing unpopular austerity measures. It was only when repeated attempts to get the Veneto regional assembly to hold an independence referendum stalled that the Veneto secessionists proceeded on their own with the online referendum — and made it coincide with the Crimean one.
The point of these referendums is to mobilize the dissatisfaction of those who strongly self-identify as Scots, Catalan or Venetian and who regard their current “host state” as foreign, burdensome, incompetent or corrupt. By leaving this state, literally, and creating another, better state, the secessionists hope to improve their lot in life. In contrast to these movements, the Crimean referendum was conceived and conducted within a few weeks: It was a response to the violent overthrow of the Ukrainian president, a popular figure in Crimea, and was used to channel the consequent fears among the majority Russian speakers into a vote to rejoin Russia as a safe haven from the new, (allegedly) hostile, anti-Russian Ukrainian government. The referendum was rushed, with the Russian military lurking in the background, before the new Ukrainian government was able to dispel voters’ fears or establish control over the autonomous republic. Within weeks after the region rejoined Russia, the pay of public employees and pensions in Crimea almost doubled; the reunification thus brought more benefits to some Crimeans than a mere secession from Ukraine would have.
No easy way out
Seceding from a country isn’t always as fast and (relatively) painless as Crimea made it seem. But there are other cases of secession that suggest these pains can be eased somewhat. First, the best strategy for any secessionists is to attempt to convince their host state that the secession of their territory won’t cause much harm. The potential secession of Scotland does not appear to be harmful to the U.K., so the U.K. government is prepared to recognize its independence. The secession of Montenegro in 2006, which the EU supported and supervised, did not appear to harm Serbia either; the Serbian government agreed to the secession of this federal unit.
If this tactic fails, a secessionist movement should try to find a powerful sponsor – a superpower, such as the U.S., or a neighbor more powerful than its host state (and not easily intimidated by a superpower), such as Russia. The Albanian secessionists in Kosovo gained U.S. sponsorship in 1998, when they led a large armed uprising against Serbia. And in 2008, when Kosovo, then a province of Serbia under U.N./NATO administration, formally seceded from Serbia in spite of Serbia’s vehement opposition, the U.S., Kosovo’s principal sponsor, along with most EU member states immediately recognized its independence. It is notable that Spain, Slovakia, Romania, Greece and Cyprus refused to recognize, on principle, a state, such as Kosovo, that unilaterally seceded against the opposition of its “host state”; not coincidentally, all these EU member states oppose separatist movements within their own borders.
This doesn’t lend much hope to the Catalan, Basque and Venetian secessionists — their host states oppose their aspirations, and they are not likely to gain powerful sponsors. Secessionists all over the globe face similar obstacles: Those in Tibet and Xinjiang (in China), the Caucasus (in Russia), Congo, Kurdistan (in Iraq) or Azawad (in Mali) — to mention, randomly, only a small selection of cases — have little chance of carving out an independent, internationally recognized state, however strong their movements may be. Quebec at least has the law on its side: If its secessionists ever succeed in winning over the majority of their province’s population, they may legally secede from Canada, thanks to a 1998 Canadian Supreme Court opinion.
For secessionists, the state they currently live in is effectively foreign.
The differences between secessionists in Europe and Quebec, on the one hand, and those elsewhere are quite obvious. Outside Europe and Quebec, the secessionists often face either a failing or a highly repressive state. Faced with the pervasive threat of violence, they aim to create a state structure that will protect the lives of its inhabitants. In some cases, such as that of Somaliland (in Somalia) or Kurdistan (in Iraq), they succeed in creating a separate, protective state that has, however, no international recognition as an independent state. In many others, they fail and are plunged into a cycle of violent civil conflict.
Secessionists in Europe and Quebec, by contrast, aren’t facing threats of violence; thus their aim is not protection but provision of perceived benefits. They claim that an independent state would advantage their constituents in all aspects of their lives much more than the current host state could; this includes a better standard of living. For them, independence serves to provide a variety of enhanced benefits to a group of people inhabiting a region within an existing state.
Many supporters of secession find it oppressive to live in a state whose rulers speak a language or dialect they consider foreign. State or cultural symbols (flags, anthems, coats of arms, popular songs) are to them also foreign: For them, the state they currently live in is effectively foreign. But these people are in the minority. As the opinion polls in Scotland, Quebec, Veneto and Catalonia suggest, identity secessionists do not form clear majorities in these regions, so would-be voters need to be convinced that independence would benefit them.
That’s not easy: In Quebec’s past two referendums, in 1981 and 1995, the veteran secessionist Parti Québécois failed to achieve even simple majorities to support independence. Pre-referendum opinion polls in Scotland, Catalonia and Veneto, while showing that the majority of voters in these regions are highly dissatisfied with the host state or central government, do not unequivocally show that the same majority would vote for independence.
Who would benefit most from the secession of Scotland, Catalonia, Veneto or Quebec? The answer is simple: The beneficiaries would first and foremost be the leaders of secessionist parties whose aim is to take over the governments of the newly independent states. If they were rulers of independent and sovereign states, their policies and actions — including the use of coercion and force — as well as their remuneration would not be subject to any higher or “foreign” sovereign authority or oversight. In addition, as the new state takes over the functions of the old — including those of diplomacy — there would be lots of new job opportunities in the expanding state bureaucracy. Local small and medium businesses would profit, too, as their competitors from outside the region withdraw across new state borders.
It’s less clear how other citizens of the new states would fare. As many nonlocal or even local companies pull out of the region (as they did prior to the Quebec referendum in 1995), employment is likely to become a pressing issue. Perhaps an economic downturn may be avoided if the seceded state remains in a regional economic organization (such as the EU) of which its former host state is a member. But this, too, remains uncertain: The EU, for example, has no policies about, or obligation toward, states seceding from an EU member.
For most people in these regions of Europe — unlike those in Crimea — seceding now would bring uncertainty and anxiety about the future that secessionist leaders would not be able to allay. For this reason alone it is highly uncertain whether the planned referendums will produce majorities in favor of independence — and, even if they do, whether these regions will become independent states, or be recognized as such, anytime soon.