Brendan McKee discuss one of Europe’s hot topics at the moment – secession and what is required for such a process to be a success.
A good deal of the political air in Europe at the moment is being consumed with questions of independence for sub-state nations, from Scotland’s recent push for a second referendum to Catalonia’s ongoing conflict with Spain over its 2017 referendum. Though these two are not the only such movements in Europe or in the world, they are certainly two of the most prominent and, if the consensus is to be believed, are the two most likely to succeed in the near future. However, this begs the question: what does it take to secede? The answer to this question can be found in the four ingredients for successful secession: fear, confidence, identity, and legitimacy.
Fear and Confidence
We begin by going back to Canada in 1996. The Quebec Referendum of 1995 was still recent news, made pressing by the fact that the separatists had only lost by the slimmest possible margin. Both Canada and Quebec were still reeling from the events of the previous year and any resolution to the issue of Quebec separatism was still years away — the issue of whether the actions of the Quebec government, in calling the referendum, were even legal would not be settled by the Supreme Court until 1998. It was at this time, surveying the aftermath of this great political battle, that the preeminent academic and one-time Prime Minister-hopeful Stephan Dion asked precisely the same question I have posed above: why is secession difficult in well-established democracies? This question was especially pressing when we consider that no secessionist has ever succeeded in a well-established democracy (the case of Jura separatism could be an exception to this rule, but given that the goal of that particular movement was to create a new canton rather than actual independence from Switzerland, this rule can still be said to stand). To this end, Dion came up with a golden rule of sorts, an equation which he argued could be used to determine how likely a separatist movement is to succeed that also explains why no such movement has succeeded within an established democracy: successful secession requires both a high amount of fear inspired by remaining within the union and a high amount of confidence inspired by secession. Without both of these ingredients, a sub-state nation is likely to fail in their quest for independence. Moreover, it is unlikely that both will exist within the confines of an established democracy, given that the freedoms granted to its citizens should go a long way in alleviating any fear of remaining in the union. Quebec separatists had come close because there had been fear associated with remaining a part of Canada: fear that French language and Quebecois culture was under siege due to the dominance of English language and American culture.
Dion’s work in this area still stands as one of the best analysis of secession and can help explain the recent history of national minorities. Success in Scotland’s 2014 referendum, for example, was almost certainly remote as though Scotland may have had confidence in its ability to succeed as an independent entity, most Scots had no accompanying fear of remaining within the UK – something which Brexit has arguably changed. This can also help us understand why some particularly small nations, such as Cornwall and Corsica, have little appetite for discussions on political independence, as their small size makes the viability of their territory as an independent state difficult though not necessarily impossible. Conversely, when we look at successful secessionist movements, such as Norway’s separation from Sweden or the three Baltic state’s secession from the Soviet Union, we see that they almost always have a combination of fear and confidence backing them up.
An Identity of Our Own
However, Dion, in focusing his research and his line of questioning upon Quebec, perhaps took for granted that fear of union and confidence of secession alone are not the only ingredients that are required for secession to succeed. A third ingredient is also required: a cohesive and shared identity among the seceding group. Without this, secession cannot possibly succeed or even get off the ground. Quebec once again illustrates this as the shared history, culture, and language of the inhabitants of the province were appealed to early on by nationalist minded politicians as a way of highlighting Quebec’s distinctness, and by extension the distinctness of Quebec from Canada in particular. We see this same process at the heart of all secessionist movements, whether we are discussing Catalonia, Scotland, Kurdistan, Tibet, Hong Kong, etc. We would expect to see this correlation as well, as without a shared identity there is nothing that binds and differentiates the future separatist region from the state as a whole.
The impact of a lacked shared identity is on display in the case of Western Canada’s current musings on separation. Though support for this is strong in some regions, particularly in provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan, there is an overall lack of a cohesive Western Canadian national identity. Unlike Quebec, the “Canadian West” lacks the criteria of a nation: it has no unified historical narrative, no strong definition of what specific or unique values are associated with being Western Canadian, and no concrete idea of what the Canadian West includes (for example, some depictions include Canada’s northern territories, some do not). This is not to say that there is not a Western Canadian identity, but simply that it is not as coherently differentiated from the Canadian identity as Quebec’s is. This is also not to say that Western Canada cannot ever have an identity coherent and cohesive enough to qualify it for the status of a nation, indeed we may be currently witness some of the first steps in forming an independent nationalism for Western Canada, rather it simply means that at this moment they are not. Finally, this does not mean that Western Canada ought to be stopped from separating if that is what its population so desires, but rather that the odds of a separatist movement in the region succeeding are low as long as it lacks an independent national identity.
The last thing a secessionist movement requires is legitimacy, both for its actions and for its objectives. This legitimacy is needed both to appease the international community as well as the domestic population. This legitimacy has stemmed from many sources in the past, often from the comparative legitimacy of seceding from the illegitimacy of a colonial or a despotic regime, though today the favoured avenue of legitimization is the referendum. As a tool, the referendum is powerful as it can effectively illustrate that independence is the will of the nation’s constituents and thereby validate secessionism through democratic means. However, it should also be noted that the referendum can be a double-edged sword, as a failed referendum can effectively bury the issue of separatism, as it did in the 1995 Quebec referendum and the 2014 Scottish referendum (Scottish independence would likely have been a defeated proposition had Brexit not occurred). Nonetheless, the risk of failing a referendum is often a gamble worth taking for separatist movements as without it, without legitimacy, it is effectively impossible to secede. After all, secessionist states that are deemed to be illegitimate may have their declarations of independence simply ignored, as was the case in Catalonia in 2017, or find their newly sovereign state cut out from much of the world’s politics, the fate faced by Taiwan. The ultimate success or failure of a separatist movement, therefore, hinges on its ability to legitimatize itself.
Most states do not wait on for the results of a referendum and hope for the best, as in many cases allowing the referendum in the first place in effect legitimizes secession as an acceptable political action. Rather, most states opt to directly combat secessionism within there borders. However, precisely how a state chooses to fight secessionism often depends on the temperament of that state’s leader, with autocrats and strongmen tending to prefer violence and repression as a means to subdue separatists. This is certainly how Erdogan, Modi, and Xi have chosen to deal with the Kurds, Kashmiris, and Hong Kongers, respectively. Such means, however, tend to have a blow back effect on the legitimacy of the regime who uses them, risking making them appear aggressive and repressive, a look that most democratic parties seeking re-election would prefer to avoid. As such, in more established democracies the preferred method is to demand that any referendum require the approval of the central government or to simply delegitimise the referendum itself. We see this at full effect in Spain, where the Spanish Constitution has been used to brand the 2017 referendum on Catalan secession as illegal and thereby undermine the legitimacy of the entire movement. Similarly, the UK government has made it clear that any referendum held on independence without approval would be illegitimate and therefore requiring that Holyrood seek Westminster’s approval for any future independence referendum, something Westminster has no obligation to give. In both of these cases, the state government is attempting to undermine the legitimacy of secession and is doing so for the very reason that legitimacy is a core ingredient for secession to be successful.
What does this Mean Going Forward?
Confidence. Fear. Identity. Legitimacy. These four ingredients are all required if a national group wishes to succeed in creating a new state for itself. However, they are also rare to find together as few states can weather having a nationalist group with all four. Canada is one of the few examples of a state which did, but then again only barely as the 1995 referendum failed but only approximately 1%. These four ingredients also help to explain why secession is in the European news today more than ever before: for the first time in a long time, two sub-state nations within European states are on the verge of having all four. Both Scotland and Catalonia have fear of remaining within their respective unions, for Scotland that fear derives from Brexit whereas for Catalonia it comes from the desire to protect the Catalan language as well as from Spain’s heavy handed approach to them. Thanks to their economic strength, both also have a high level of confidence in being able to succeed as states should they become independent. They both have strong identities of their own thanks to their long historical narratives that play up their uniqueness. This leaves them only with only legitimacy as their final hurdle. Where it will come from is yet to be seen, but it is unlikely that the current situation will maintain itself as it is for much longer.