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Briefing

Scottish reverbations: Who might push for independence next? (+video)

Scotland voted against independence from Britain, but its example nonetheless is inspiring other separatist movements both in Europe and beyond.

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    People wave 'estelada' flags, which symbolize Catalonia's independence, during a demonstration calling for the independence of Catalonia outside of the Parliament of Barcelona, Spain, on Friday. The banner reads, 'On 9 Nov, we will vote.'
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Britain remains intact after Scotland's independence referendum last week, but indications are the Scots may one day try again. In the meantime, other independence movements have been galvanized worldwide to separate from countries that do not really want to see them go. 

Where are the secession movements?

There are so many separatist movements across the globe, from Africa, to the Middle East, to Asia, that if they were all successful the new world map would be unrecognizable. Some of those closely watching the political fights of Scotland include China, which faces unrest from the Uighurs, an ethnic Muslim minority in the province of Xinjiang, as well as Tibet; Kurds vying for independence in Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and Iran; and the Saharawi people pushing for self-determination in Western Sahara.

But the most rapt attention on the Scottish referendum was paid by its independence-minded neighbors within Europe, where many of the political and socioeconomic conditions are similar to that of Scotland. The most influential of those regions are Catalonia and the Basque Country in Spain and Flanders in Belgium. But other European regions with aspirations of independence include Corsica in France, Venice and South Tyrol in Italy, and the Faroe Islands in Denmark.

What impact did a referendum in Scotland have on these other independence movements?

Even though the referendum in Scotland ended in a “no” vote, the fact that Scots were able to cast ballots, with a huge turnout of 85 percent, has inspired others. The Catalans in Spain have looked to Scotland as they promise to carry forward with a similar, though nonbinding, vote on Nov. 9, which the Spanish government is trying to block. The Scottish experience has also reinvigorated movements because they succeeded in gaining promises from London that Scotland will be granted additional powers – likely to include income tax powers and a greater share of natural resources.

For Alan Kuperman, an expert on secession at the University of Texas at Austin, one of the biggest risks from independence “contagion” is that while secession referendums are low cost – in terms of human lives – in the developed world, they set a precedent for the developing world where the stakes are often much higher. “What you will see in places that follow and try to secede, in the Middle East, Asia, or Africa, it will not be low cost. It will be high cost.”

How often are secession movements violent?

There are three avenues to independence: consensual divorce, a consensual vote, and unilateral action. Some examples of peaceful divorce of nations include the Czechs and Slovaks in 1993 and Norway and Sweden in 1905. The Scottish vote, which was consensual, was also overwhelmingly peaceful. But these are the exceptions. “The vast majority of them are violent,” says David Siroky, a political science professor at Arizona State University and author of the forthcoming book “Secession and Survival: Nations, States, and Violent Conflict.” 

“In most cases, states are much stronger and crush the movements.... [G]roups then disappear and re-emerge,” he says. When the struggles are protracted, civilians get caught in deadly battles, such as in the Basque terrorism of the past century to the current conflict in Ukraine, where pro-Russian separatists in the east are waging war against the central government’s armed forces.

How should governments respond to independence movements?

The increase in autonomy promised to Scotland is a common response of governments to placate restive regions. But Mr. Kuperman argues that historically, greater autonomy has not deflated ambitions of independence. “The reason is very simple. When [a government] grants some autonomy, it reinforces a sense of separate identity,” he says. “In many cases it will backfire.” In his forthcoming book “Constitutions and Conflict Management in Africa: Preventing Civil War Through Institutional Design,” he argues that governments should give regions and communities incentives to embrace the nation, so citizens rally around policies instead of identity politics. It’s an “integrative” model, as opposed to the “accommodative” approach negotiated for Scotland.

How viable is independence for many of these states?

While polls showed a race too close to call ahead of the Scottish referendum, the ballots cast against independence won with a clear majority. A similar last-minute shift was seen when Quebecois went to the polls in 1995. That might show that the notions of independence are alluring to many voters but when it comes to making final decisions, the realities of what is at stake become the driving motivation. 

Even when independence is achieved, it doesn’t always translate into thriving nationhood. Kosovo declared independence in 2008. Today many consider it a failed state, and half of the world’s countries still do not recognize it. To succeed, countries must not only assert cultural, ethnic, or religious distinction, they must be economically viable.

In some ways, in Europe today, secession has been facilitated by the European Union. As regions seek to break off into a smaller state, they aspire for membership in a larger union that will protect them and offer access to integrated markets. In short, the EU makes the path to independence less risky.

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