Learning from Catalonia: What criteria for independence bids?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

Lacking a clear-cut “just cause” legitimacy, Catalonia invoked a “choice theory” principle, based on a simple majority vote to justify secession from Spain. [Sasha Popovic / Flickr]

The EU needs to establish a rational basis for determining the legitimacy of independence bids. Secession of regions should be difficult to enact, but not impossible, argue Steven Hill and Andrew Watt.

Steven Hill is a tech journalist, former Holtzbrinck fellow at the American Academy in Berlin and author of Die Startup Illusion: Wie die Internet-Ökonomie unseren Sozialstaat ruiniert. Andrew Watt is the deputy director of the Macroeconomic Policy Institute (IMK – Institut für Makroökonomie und Konjunkturforschung) in the Hans-Böckler Foundation.

The standoff over Catalan independence from Spain has split not only the region and country, but Europe as a whole. That’s because this issue raises a bigger question:  when is it appropriate for a region of a larger geopolitical entity to secede? What criteria should be used to decide the legitimacy of a secession bid?

Secession is a battle over the fundamental question of “who has the right to govern whom.” Two basic positions have gained prominence:  choice theory, which posits that there is a general right of secession that all polities are entitled to, as long as it is grounded in the will of the seceding majority; and just cause theory, which says that any legitimate right to secession must be in response to an egregious injury or harm that has been committed against the seceding polity by the originary (“mother”) state.

The various independence bids that occurred after 1989 when various polities exited the Soviet Union and Yugoslav Federation underscored that a “just cause” standard based on human rights violations enjoys widespread legitimacy. The independence bid of Kosovo, which has suffered human rights violations at the hands of Serbia, has gained support from 23 out of 28 EU and 109 out of 193 United Nations member states.

Catalonia’s challenge

The case of Catalonia, however, lands politicians as well as political theorists in a cauldron of controversy. Catalonia also has its list of grievances, many of them culturally and historically rooted. But as in Scotland, few have argued that those grievances are sufficient to legitimize Catalonia’s secession bid according to a “just cause” doctrine. There have not been any human rights violations, and Catalonia already enjoys very substantial autonomy in the cultural, linguistic, educational and governance fields.

The main substantive grievance is linked to the fact that Catalonia is one of Spain’s wealthiest regions and, like wealthy regions in most federal states, contributes disproportionately to financing the Spanish budget.

Lacking a clear-cut “just cause” legitimacy, Catalonia invoked a “choice theory” principle, based on a simple majority vote (in a low turnout election) of the seceding region. But should that be sufficient for providing legitimacy for an independence movement? What would be the consequences of permitting secession throughout Europe based on a “choice theory” principle?

Under choice theory, even the most abhorrent reasons cannot be challenged, such as when the southern United States tried to secede in order to preserve the institution of slavery. Moreover, permitting the secession of wealthy regions on a simplistic choice theory principle poses a grave threat to redistributive mechanisms within nation-states.

The impact could be realised well before actual independence, as countries keen to keep the lid on an independence movement may reduce redistribution as a way of placating voters in wealthier regions.

And given that EU member states can permanently block the accession of seceding regions, choice theory risks unravelling the EU, including its geographic continuity, as vetoed membership bids create non-EU states across the continent, like the holes in Swiss cheese.

Moving forward: criteria for legitimate secession within the EU

Structured properly, a rational discourse about regional identities and economic, social and cultural interests could be a source of strength in the EU. It could help drain away much of the peril from the current fractious regional conflicts.

The EU should design criteria for a rational and forward-looking foundation for secession of a region, just as it has created criteria for admitting new member states. It should make it clear that the overly-simplistic “choice theory principle” cannot serve as a basis for secession within the EU. However, the EU should offer new guidelines for a legitimate just cause secession process that can be initiated, even in the absence of human rights violations.

One criterion might be when a dramatic change of relationship occurs between the originary state and the secessionist region. A real-world illustration would be Northern Ireland or Scotland seeking to secede from the UK following Brexit. When the UK exits the EU, it will drag the two regions (which both voted to remain) out of the EU.

That will greatly affect the Scottish and northern Irish economies and their international relations (especially with the Republic of Ireland). The implications are arguably so severe as to constitute a legitimate point along the continuum of “just causes.”

Additional criteria should be required, such as:

  • The territory under consideration must have some significant historical, linguistic, cultural or other bases of cohesion and identity.
  • The secessionist region must demonstrate a substantial and long-lasting (i.e. not merely temporary) majority in the territory concerned. This could involve a 55-60% voting threshold for passage in any referendum, indicating a decisive vote in support of a clear new direction; as well as a certain minimum voter turnout threshold in order for the referendum to be valid.
  • The seceding territory must meet all the criteria for being an EU member state, including eventually joining the eurozone (as is already required by EU law), and equal treatment of ethnic, linguistic or other population groups (including those opposed to secession).
  • A “just cause” secession from a member state should not automatically lead to exclusion from the EU or allow a permanent veto on membership held by the originary country.
  • Agreement between the breakaway region and the existing member state on a reasonable financial settlement regarding public debts, social security financing, and other previous financial commitments. Particularly in the case of wealthy breakaway regions, a valid independence claim should ensure that the state left behind does not suffer a dramatic loss of wealth and standing.

At the same time, the EU should design such mechanisms that any increase in the number of member states resulting from secession ensures the continued effectiveness of federal decision-making.

The EU needs to establish a rational basis for determining the legitimacy of secession bids. Secession of regions with a legitimate “just cause” claim should be difficult to enact, but not impossible.

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