Will Separatist Secession Strengthen Europe by Tearing History Apart?

Lest we forget that the last two millennia of history along with dozens of languages and dialects have bequeathed on virtually every remote corner of Europe at least theoretical desires for autonomy and independence, the process of fermentation seeking to experiment with “regionalist” attacks on the faits accompli of the nation state has reached new heights. The European Union, Nobel Peace laureate of 2012, is currently faced with votes on no less than four attempts at an orderly secession: in Scotland, Flanders, Catalonia, and in the Basque Country. And there are many more to come if any of those succeed. None of the regions currently aspiring to statehood have expressed any desire to leave the EU or to become a tax haven. Quite the contrary, all aspire to renewed membership and Scotland’s movement now even proposes to join the Euro. While the Scottish Independence Movement is supported by a minority only, a ¾ supermajority backs independence in Catalonia, and in the Basque Country the very recent vote of October 21, 2012 produced a verifiable and recognized 64% separatist majority – almost ⅔.

Because the EU Treaty does not provide for automatic membership of a seceding region, a newly independent state would have to seek admission based on a case-by-case review of its readiness for membership. This process could be blocked or delayed potentially for years by the government of the exited member state due to each accession’s unanimity requirement. State succession to the appropriate share of a former state entity’s national debt would be another inevitably contentious issue. But at the same time, orderly regional secession offers a unique option for peaceful democratic change and for “historical revisionism” redrawing a map often enough shaped in the wake of hardly voluntary peace agreements during the continent’s bloody history. Many European territories have been acquired over the last 300 years or more by means of military force and/or by feudal and monarchic inheritance. The borders of almost every major European state were thus defined and restated in ways that have no longer any meaning for regional populations whose local cultural coherence frequently remained stronger than its identification with the larger nation state.

The dissolution of the former Russian Empire perpetuated and enlarged by Stalin in World War II demonstrated by many examples the irrepressible nature of demands for self-determination despite centuries of often forcible Russification of the Ukraine, Belarus, Central Asia and the Caucasian Nations. Much the same has happened during the post-World War I dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire that has left large German-speaking populations in South Tyrol (now Alto Adige, Italy) and large Hungarian-speaking populations in Slovakia, along with a considerable heritage of post-Yugoslavian crises. For much of the former Yugoslavia is a prime candidate for a re-drawing of administrative borders at the ballot box in the wake of the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, where Macedonia and Bosnia-Hercegovina, but also Kosovo readily come to mind. Bulgaria had entered World War I primarily to recover parts of Macedonia from Yugoslavia and Greece. At its high water mark centuries ago, the kingdom of Poland had occupied Moscow and installed a puppet tsar who was really a viceroy of Cracow. The Grand Duchy of Lithuania once reached from the Baltic to the Black Sea. Swedish domination during the Thirty Years War reached as far South as Austria and as far East as the Russian border. Belgium and the Netherlands used to be provinces of the Spanish Crown, as was Portugal. Italy itself is a creation of the late nineteenth century. Thus, historical claims and ties can be formulated and also justified to almost any extent desired, and can be seized upon by popular sentiments or movements with a multitude of root causes for resentment of the status quo. A peaceful democratic legal process is therefore needed to allow regional allegiances to shift or even to reclaim sovereign independence within the EU – almost always preceded by demands for far-reaching decentralization within existing borders.

Secessionist tendencies in Ulster or the Basque Country are by no means rendered moot just because armed struggle by the IRA or the ETA has resulted in a “definitive” renouncement of armed operations. Given the EU’s freedom of movement of persons, capital and labor, “peoples’ prisons” no longer exist in principle as individual mobility has been ensured. But international law has failed to reconcile the fundamental collective right to self-determination (recognized since Woodrow Wilson’s 14 points for a post-World War I world order) with the right to territorial integrity that is now more fully recognized by the UN Charter in Articles 1 and 55 (albeit without defining it). As a result, peaceful secession still can only happen by consensus to date, and this explains the enduring but unfulfilled aspirations of Kurds, Palestinians, Tibetans, Kashmiris and many others, but also of a number of European ethnicities, even in neutral and peaceful Switzerland. No wonder, then, that Spain, fearful of contagion by precedent, was the only European country critical of Kosovar independence.

Secessionist movements are a characteristic of regions with higher economic development that, like Flanders or Catalonia, resent perpetual redistribution of regional economic wealth creation from their taxpayers to poorer regions by majority vote of the national legislature. Separatists everywhere in Europe toy with the idea of delegating their foreign and defense policy to Brussels which could boost the development toward more profound political union. While nationalist arguments, as a political philosophy for the most part an outgrowth of 18th century Enlightenment alongside the development of democracy, have fallen into abject disrepute within today’s EU discourse, and independence movements have come to represent backwardness, prohibiting discussion or referenda on grounds of political correctness under a post-nationalist doctrine cannot lead to lasting peaceful solutions. The right to self-determination cannot be recognized as an explicit basis for German reunification yet its exercise be denied other ethnic groups. 

In autumn of 2014, Scotland will, by consensus with the current British government, vote on a rescission of the 1707 Treaty of Union with England that formed the United Kingdom. The referendum is the result of regional elections where the Scottish National Party (SNP) gained a significant majority and forms the regional government. The SNP’s compelling argument is to keep North Sea Crude Oil revenues under Scottish control rather than sending an unending stream of billions to London. While support for independence stands between 32-38% and has been slightly decreasing since the SNP first formed the Scottish Government in 2007, firm opposition to independence has weakened as well. Rumors that Spain would, as a matter of precedent, veto expedited Scottish membership in the EU have been denied by the Madrid government. The SNP originally proposed to retain Sterling as the common currency. But resistance in England, Northern Ireland and Wales cites an increased potential for devaluation of the Pound, and the SNP has since proposed to introduce the Euro.

Once comparatively poorer than the earlier-industrialized southern francophone region of Wallonia, Dutch-speaking Flanders gradually emerged after World War II as the more prosperous part of Belgium. Flemish separatists now work toward a constitutional change establishing a confederacy to end what they say costs every Flemish taxpayer $1,600 a year to “maintain Wallonia.” No full sovereignty is being sought, not least because a new Flemish State would inevitably succeed to the majority of Belgium’s national debt, killing any referendum prospects.

According to most recent polls, 74% of Catalans favor statehood with independence from Spain, and the regional government seeks to hold a referendum still in 2012 on the question, “Do you favor Catalonia to become a new member state of the European Union?” Even after Catalan, having been cultivated since centuries, was recognized as a co-official language along with Spanish, Spain’s richest region still blames the central government for continued structural unemployment, persistent and profound economic woes and a banking crisis that is about to consume one full third of the European Stability Mechanism (ESM), the EU’s newly ratified €500 billion multilateral bailout umbrella. The Spanish government opposes a referendum on the purely formalistic ground that the Spanish Constitution “does not provide for such an option.” Catalan business organizations, in turn, warn that major firms might divest themselves of Catalan operations based on fear of Catalonia’s isolation if EU membership were blocked by Spain for several years regardless of pressure from other European countries and would not happen quasi-automatically as the Scottish consensus model would provide. Of course, the British government’s consensus was a lot easier to obtain than Madrid’s since Scottish Independence is, at least at present, nowhere near striking distance of a popular majority. Catalonia’s regional elections on November 25, 2012 will test current voter sentiments in the region but probably confirm historic sentiments. 

Basque Country
The Basque Nationalist Party, oldest of the secessionist genre, plans a referendum as late as 2015 and seeks to extract concessions from the central government first for a new political status and increased autonomy. Most recent elections on October 21, 2012 returned the Nationalist party PNV to power with 27 of 75 seats in parliament, along with 21 seats for the socialist ETA offshoot EH Bildu Coalition. After a relatively brief term of office, the pro-Spain Socialist Party was replaced, not least as a consequence of the notorious economic turmoil and crass mismanagement in Spain. After the ETA had killed since 1959 830 policemen, local politicians and others by bombings and gunshots, and injuring thousands, dissolution of centuries of union with Spain seems hardly avoidable despite ETA’s permanent cessation of violence and armed activity in January 2011.

Need for international standards

Failure to develop internationally recognized standards and procedures for a peaceful and democratic transition of secessionist regions or ethnicities to new government structures is perhaps the single most critical and fateful shortcoming of the international community’s peacekeeping efforts. Viable results can be achieved in three ways: by nominally preserving the existing statehood through greatly increased autonomy or confederacy; by creating a new sovereign entity; or by joining another existing state. Either avenue, or sequential combination thereof, must be considered a reflection of political flexibility, mobility, and legitimate competition of administrative models and cultures that could serve as an important precedent and a model for independence or secession movements outside Europe. Just like the peaceful transition of power following free and fair elections has been, in essence, a creation and legacy of Western political culture, similarly satisfactory standards for the adherence to the rule of law and especially for due process must be provided to secure peaceful changes in sovereign allegiances and state succession.

Considerably more separatist, secessionist or devolutionist movements exist today than can be discuss here in any depth. Currently, as many as 107 sovereign countries are the subject of one or, in many cases, multiple separatist or secessionist movements, not all of which, of course, are equally significant, determined, or likely to succeed. Affected are 28 nations in Africa, 23 in Asia, 30 in Europe, 8 in North America, 8 in South America and 10 in Oceania. Simply by providing internationally recognized lawful options to pursue ambitions for decentralization, devolution or secession is bound to go a long way toward defusing numerous such initiatives. Unless they are opposed by oppressive and repressive tactics, they are considerably more likely to fail at mustering sufficient popular support. Giving them opportunity to succeed also provides them with an opportunity to fail without the halo of martyrdom and heroism. It will prevent escalation and use of force in instances of a genuine and powerful popular movement.

Motives for separatism are almost as many as there are secessionist movements. They reach from illegitimate acquisition, ethnic cleansing or genocide to oppression or discrimination on grounds of language, culture or religion, economic disadvantage, geopolitical power vacuum, but not least also opportunism and propaganda by popular group leadership.

It is easy to identify a multitude of widely-known secessionist drives, in combination with current repressive legitimist responses thereto by the opposing central government or majority culture, as genuine threats to international peace. Prominent examples can be found in China’s regions of Xinjang and Tibet, in the North Caucasus, Moldavia’s Transnistria, in Sahraoui, Palestine, Kurdistan, Waziristan, Colombia, Chile, Argentina, Peru, and in contested areas in Africa such as South Sudan, Mali, Côte d'Ivoire, Uganda, Congo, and Northern Nigeria. Without the positive example of a successful European precedent, peaceful solutions to popular demands for transitions in any of these areas will remain less likely. Secession is at once a remedy for history’s enduring wrongs by democratic means and through a peaceful process.

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