The European Union has brought 28 countries into a closer political and economic union. Paradoxically it has also made it more feasible to contemplate the breakup of some of those countries.
Independence for a small state outside of a political and economic group like the EU would be risky nowadays. Within the EU, however, the barriers between states — and thus the economic and political risks of independence — are lower.
Consider Scotland, where a popular referendum on independence will be held on Sept. 18. The referendum is the result of the landslide victory by the Scottish National Party in the 2011 Scottish Parliament election.
British Prime Minister David Cameron has argued against Scotland leaving the United Kingdom, but he has not opposed holding the referendum. Opinion polls taken since the wording of the referendum (“Should Scotland be an independent country?”) was announced indicate that the “yes” side is unlikely to gain a clear majority.
In Spain, there is a national debate about independence for Catalonia, where national identity is strengthened by the fact that the majority of the region’s residents speak Catalan as well as Spanish.
By contrast, only about 1 percent of Scots can speak Scottish Gaelic. Perhaps as a result, support for independence in Catalonia appears to be far broader, with about half of the region’s residents saying that they support secession.
But the Spanish Parliament voted overwhelmingly against allowing the Catalan government to hold a referendum on independence, and the central government has said that such a vote would be unconstitutional. Artur Mas, President of Catalonia’s regional government, has vowed to go ahead with a nonbinding referendum anyway.
If a majority of the voters in a distinct region of a country favor independence, does that mean that they have a right to secede? There are surely more questions that need to be addressed than that single one.
What if a region’s secession leaves behind a rump state that is no longer viable? Within the EU, this is less of an issue, given that small states — in theory — still benefit from free trade within the union; but, outside of the EU, the situation of the remaining state can be dire.
In September 1938, Adolf Hitler threatened to attack Czechoslovakia in order to bring the ethnic Germans living near the German border under his rule. The Munich Agreement gave this region, referred to by the Nazis as the Sudetenland, to Germany, leaving Czechoslovakia without defensible borders and paving the way for the Nazi invasion and partition of the country the following March.
Had a free and fair referendum been offered to the Sudeten Germans, a majority might have backed union with Germany. But would that have given them the right to leave the remainder of Czechoslovakia defenseless against its large and hostile neighbor?
The U.K. and Spain do not need to fear that independence for Scotland and Catalonia would expose them to such threats. Nonetheless, the secession of Scotland would deprive the U.K. of significant North Sea oil revenues, on which the economics of Scottish independence largely relies, and Spain could also suffer from the loss of Catalonia’s disproportionately large contribution to the Spanish economy.
Widespread human rights violations, either caused or tolerated by a national government, can give rise to what is sometimes called a remedial right to secession for a region’s inhabitants. If other remedies fail in such a situation, secession might be justified as a last resort, even if it imposes heavy costs on the rump state.
That was the case when Bangladesh seceded from Pakistan, and it was also allegedly the case when NATO supported Kosovo’s independence from Serbia. But this is not true of Scotland or Catalonia; nor, despite Russian propaganda, does it appear to be the case for those regions of Ukraine with ethnic Russian majorities.
If Scotland and Catalonia ever become independent countries, it will only be because the U.K. and Spain permit it. All states have an interest in stability, so it is hard to imagine that, in the absence of widespread, grave and undeniable human rights violations, other states would recognize a region that, after being part of a state for many centuries, declared itself independent without the acquiescence of the country from which it secedes.
The EU is also unlikely to accept Scotland or Catalonia as a member if the U.K. or Spain rejects their claims to independence. Indeed, European Commission President José Manuel Barroso has said that the EU may reject Scotland and Catalonia’s applications, or at least delay them considerably, even if the U.K. and Spain do accept their independence. And, without EU membership, it is hard to imagine that a majority of people in Scotland or Catalonia would take the plunge into economic uncertainty that independence would bring.
The role of a referendum in a region seeking to secede can therefore only be a form of persuasion aimed at the government of the existing state. A large turnout showing a clear majority for independence would be a way to say: See how strongly we feel about this issue. We are so dissatisfied with the status quo that most of us now favor secession. If you want us to stay, you need to address the grievances that have caused a majority of us to want to leave.
Peter Singer is a professor of bioethics at Princeton University and a laureate professor at the University of Melbourne. He is the author of “Practical Ethics,” “One World,” “The Life You Can Save,” and, most recently, “The Point of View of the Universe” (co-authored with Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek). © 2014 Project Syndicate