LONDON – In other parts of the world, separatist movements are usually violent (such as Kashmir, Sri Lanka, the various Kurdish revolts) and they sometimes succeed (South Sudan, Eritrea, East Timor).
Whereas in the prosperous, democratic countries of the West, they are generally peaceful, frivolous and unsuccessful.
A case in point is the various separatist movements in the European Union. Scotland will be holding a vote on independence from Britain in 2014, and both Catalonia and the Basque country in Spain have just elected nationalist governments that promise to hold referendums on independence.
But it will probably never happen.
The Scots, the Catalans and the Basques tend to see themselves as victims, but nobody else does. They are self-governing in most matters except defense and foreign affairs. They have their own budgets, and they maintain separate education systems and cultural institutions.
The Scots get more money back from the central government in London than they pay in taxes, while Catalonia and the Basque country (Euskara, in the Basque language), claim that they contribute more to Madrid than they receive. But the sums are relatively modest, and in any case it is not necessary to break up the country in order to renegotiate fiscal imbalances.
What really drives the separatism is emotion, which is why popular support for it is so soft. Rectifying the historic defeat of (insert name of centuries-old lost battle here) by declaring independence in the here-and-now has great emotional appeal, but most people put their economic interests first. Nationalist leaders always promise that independence will change nothing important on the economic front.
The way they do this in both Scotland and the separatist regions of Spain is by insisting that membership in the European Union would pass automatically to the successor state. Opponents of the secession, however, argue that there’s nothing automatic about it. The arguments are not just directed at the home audience.
In October, when Scotland’s first minister, Alex Salmond, agreed on the terms for the 2014 referendum with the British government, Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo promptly declared that an independent Scotland would not automatically be an EU member, and that any one of the 27 EU member states (like Spain, for example) could veto it.
“In the hypothetical case of independence,” he said, “Scotland would have to join the queue (for EU membership) and ask to be admitted, needing the unanimous approval of all member states to obtain the status of a candidate country.”
The European Commission president, Jose Manuel Barroso, also said in September that an independent Scotland would be seen as a new state and would have to apply to join.
This was furiously disputed by Salmond, who knew that his chances of winning the 2014 referendum were nil if the Scots believed that they were voting to leave the EU. For months he had insisted that he had sought the opinion of his government’s law officers, who had confirmed that Scotland would inherit EU membership automatically, and would not even have to adopt the euro. Alas, he was lying.
Late in October, it became known that Salmond had not actually asked for the law officers’ opinion at all. Now he has been forced by public opinion to pop the question — and he may not like the answer.
An even bigger defeat for Salmond came in his negotiations with British Prime Minister David Cameron, where he had to agree that the referendum would ask a simple yes-or-no question: in or out?
This goes against the instincts of all separatist leaders, who prefer a fuzzy, feel-good question that doesn’t mention the frightening word “independence” at all.
The most famous formulation of this question was in the 1995 Quebec referendum on secession from Canada: “Do you agree that Quebec should become sovereign after having made a formal offer to Canada for a new economic and political partnership within the scope of the bill respecting the future of Quebec and of the agreement signed on June 12, 1995?” Not exactly clear, is it?
That referendum was very close, but in 2000 the Canadian federal government passed a law generally known as the “Clarity Act”. It said that negotiations between the federal government and any province on secession should only follow “a clear expression of the will of the population of a province that the province cease to be part of Canada.”
This requirement would not be met, it added, if the referendum question “merely focuses on a mandate to negotiate without soliciting a direct expression of the will of the population of that province on (independence),” or if the question “envisages other possibilities … such as economic or political arrangements with Canada, that obscure a direct expression of the will of the population on (secession).”
This law drastically reduces the likelihood that the separatists could win any future referendum in Quebec, and it’s obviously what David Cameron had in mind in his negotiations with Salmond on the Scottish referendum.
As for Catalonia and Euskara, the national parliament in Madrid must approve of any referendum on separation, and the current Spanish government has made it abundantly clear that it has no intention of doing that.
So it’s mostly just hot air and hurt feelings, really.
Gwynne Dyer is a journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.