Why you should care
Because from Catalonia to Kurdistan, secession is “in” in 2017.
This week: Should states be able to vote for independence? Let us know by email or in the comments below.
No matter where you look, secession is rather in vogue these days. As bloated central governments in capital cities across the globe struggle to keep pace with the modern world, far-flung states and overlooked regions are looking at all the mess and thinking, “Maybe we could do it better ourselves.”
It’s not just the ongoing political turmoil in Spain, where Catalonia voted in favor of independence earlier this month (though with just 43 percent voter turnout) in a referendum deemed illegal by Madrid. There’s also the autonomous region of Kurdistan, where violence has erupted after a referendum strongly backed independence from Iraq, and there’s even a separatist movement in southern Brazil that has held an unofficial vote about breaking away from the motherland. And then there’s the U.K., where just three years ago a secessionist movement nearly pulled Scotland out of the union by popular vote. The Scots were soon upstaged by a nationwide push for independence — not from a parent country but from the European Union. For its part, the EU is keen to nip the Catalonian issue in the bud, so as not to fan the flames of independence movements elsewhere on the continent, whether it’s Flanders from Belgium, Bavaria from Germany or Greenland from Denmark.
So what are we to make of this breakaway fever? Is small beautiful when it comes to nations?
“Insofar as they are able to fend for themselves, why not?” says Matt Qvortrup, a political science professor at Coventry University and expert on all things secessionist. Everyone insisted before Ireland and Norway became independent that they would be too tiny to stand on their own. But small countries tend to be pretty good at governing themselves, Qvortrup explains. So it’s no wonder that some even want the United States to get in on the action.
Though no territory has seceded from the United States since the Civil War, there’s long been a separatist spirit in the Lone Star State — Texas has a history of independence before joining the Union. Meanwhile, a mass movement seeking to approve a ballot initiative for independence in California has gained traction since President Trump’s election. That said, politics is all about discussion and compromise, so the “ ‘if I don’t like it, I’m gonna leave’ [approach] is not a particularly adult way of dealing with politics,” says Qvortrup.
Also, while the right to self-determination is well established in international law, this does not equate to a right to full independence. If there is not a legal provision for separation in a country’s constitution, then, barring a special agreement, any state or territory’s referendum on independence is illegal, says Qvortrup, and “an illegal act cannot create a legal right.” In other words, if you don’t have an existing agreement with the motherland, then you’re stuck. So those hoping for a #Texit or #CalExit are up against it: There is no provision allowing for secession in the U.S. constitution, making any such move illegal.
Of course, politics can always get around the law. Overwhelming public support can force democratic governments to capitulate, and any wannabe nation that can win the support of the international community (most importantly, big guns like the United States, France and Britain on the U.N. Security Council) can secede despite the rules, Qvortrup advises. “It really is down to power politics,” he says.
So what do you think? Could the world do with another couple dozen new countries? Let us know by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or by answering in the comments below.