Seceding in the union

Written by Mark Briggs on . Posted in Current features, Features

This year referenda will be held in Scotland and Catalonia on the regions’ independence. Despite an increasingly globalised world secession debates remain active in the Basque country, Flanders, Veneto and other regions across the European Union. What do secession and independence mean in today’s world, what drives regions in a globalised world to put up additional borders? What do these regions want when they talk of secession, and what are the potential pitfalls of becoming an independent nation?

“In the most basic constitutional form secession means that what we understand as the territory of a polity is changing,” says Regina Grafe, Professor of Early Modern History of Europe. For Grafe, the issue of secession is merely part of the ongoing process that has seen the political map of Europe re-drawn by each generation.

“If you think about it from an historical perspective states have changed shape, have changed borders and political systems…It’s nothing new; anyone surprised about territorial changes would do well to have a historical map of Europe to hand.”

Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, East and West Germany, have all passed into history in the last 25 years creating new borders and countries in the process while German and Italian unification only occurred in the nineteenth century. It is an ongoing process, and one that shows little sign of abating.

Scotland and Spain                                                                                                     

The two highest profile secession movements currently in progress are both seeking a democratic route to independence. Three years ago the Scottish National Party (SNP) won a majority in the devolved Scottish Parliament and included a referendum for independence in their manifesto. The vote will take place on 18 September, although currently the polls show the majority of voters intend to vote against independence.

Catalonia is also planning its own referendum for 9 November; however unlike the Scottish vote it does not have the legal backing of the state from which they wish to secede. The Edinburgh Agreement agreed the terms of the referendum in Scotland but a recent vote in the Spanish parliament ruled the Catalan vote unconstitutional on the basis that changing the borders of the country required a nationwide vote.

According to Grafe the current debate in Spain stems largely from the transition to democracy following the death of General Francisco Franco in 1975.

In a bid to rebuild a stable democratic state, the exact status of the regions was left deliberately ambiguous. Instead each region negotiated directly with the centre for the powers they wanted for their own province.  “The result was what is known as ‘café para todos’, every provincial politician in every autonomia had an obvious interest in asking for more and more areas of public administration to be turned over.”

“This led to a deeply dysfunctional political model. Spain has no federal structure constitutionally, but has devolved more power to the level of the autonomias than the federal FRG devolves to its Lander.”

With the regions negotiating directly with Madrid and not with each other to find collective solutions political discourse has become increasingly antagonistic. Local politicians can easily lay the region’s problems at the door of Madrid, claiming if only they were given more autonomy or more support, things would be different.

A similar debate can be heard in Scotland. The independence argument suggests that since the Second World War, Scotland has too often been governed by a party in Westminster that didn’t have a majority north of the border. Invariably these governments were led by the Conservative Party and seen as representing the wealthy elite of southern England. Currently although the Conservatives have 303 MPs in parliament there is only one elected from Scotland. The SNP claims independence would allow them to create a Scandinavian style social democracy.

“It is not clear, in which way the project of an independent Catalonia would create a new state with a different social, political or economic project. Politicians’ promises concentrate on the fact that it will not belong to Spain,” says Grafe. “The Scots seem to have a clearer idea of how that new state would be different”

Secession and the EU

Professor Stefano Bartolini“That is in part a consequence of the economic crisis. In Spain and Catalonia – as elsewhere in Europe – nationalist [and sub-nationalist] sentiment became one of the ways in which politicians respond to the crisis,” says Grafe

There is a double edged irony to these growing sub state nationalisms. The Conservative Party in the UK is determined to repatriate powers from the EU, while at the same time fighting against the same desire in the Scots.

Both the Catalans and the Scots wish to remain in the EU should they achieve independence. “Sub-state nationalists have long looked towards the EU as a guarantor of minority rights,” says Grafe. “But their nationalist ideology is at odds with the European project insofar as the latter is meant to reduce the role of the nation state.”

“There are a number of other member states who are having secession problems,” explains Stefano Bartolini, Peter Mair Chair in Comparative Politics at the EUI. “Do they want to legitimate the principle that under the umbrella of Europe you can split?”

President of the European Commission José Manuel Barroso has previously told the BBC it would be “extremely difficult, if not impossible, for Scotland to join.”

However, Alex Salmond, leader of the SNP has claimed that if Scotland were not allowed into the EU it would amount to the “removal of 5 million EU citizens against their will because they have taken part in a legal, democratic vote on how they should be governed.”

The free movement of people and goods around the EU as well as the single currency means many of the traditional threats of secession have been removed. While certain border effects do remain, they have been reduced in potency.

“The strengthening of the European framework reduced the cost of secession,” says Bartolini. “In a sense the EU has taken away the high political significance of the state and in that sense it could be considered as fostering increasing claims to autonomy.”

The union has over the course of its history actively sought to remove economic and mobility boundaries, inadvertently threatening the remaining political ones.

The end of the nation state?

“The best way to think about secession movements is to think about the way that states are formed. We tend to start from a status quo…anything that changes that order is abnormal, is secession, and is breaking the natural order of things,” suggests Grafe.

According to Grafe we have come to regard the nation state as the accepted form of governance, with the current collaboration of borders seen as the natural order. “The crucial point is that all debates about a rewriting of borders at the moment have reverted to a discourse that reifies the nation as the only legitimate form of political organisation.”

Global issues such as global warming, the economy, and migration increasingly draw the attention of elected officials. This has left a vacuum of representation increasing the desire for more regional representation to focus on local issues.

“As voters feel increasingly anxious about a more globalised world many come to believe that smaller ‘historical’ polities would represent them better,” suggests Grafe.

“From the historian’s perspective, however, that just obscures the real issues. The nation state was never more than one form of political organisation. Its reification has been and continues to be overwhelmingly the source of political conflicts, not the solution,” concludes Grafe.

“There isn’t any reason to assume that a change of borders will solve any of the issues.”

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