In other parts of the world, separatist movements are usually violent (for example, 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. What really drives the separatism is emotion, which is why popular support for it is so soft. Rectifying the historic defeat of — one can insert the name of any 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. The way they do this in both Scotland and the separatist regions of Spain is by insisting that membership in the EU would pass automatically to the successor State. The opponents of secession, however, argue that there’s nothing automatic about it.
The arguments are not just directed at the home audience. When Scotland’s First Minister, Alex Salmond, agreed to the terms for the 2014 referendum with the British government, Spanish Foreign Minister José 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 could veto it. 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 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. He was lying.
Late last month, it became known that Salmond had not 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 the 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”. The most famous formulation of this question was in the 1995 Quebec referendum on secession from Canada. 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 in question “merely focuses on a mandate to negotiate without soliciting a direct expression of the will of the population of that province on (independence).”
This law drastically reduces the likelihood that the separatists could win any future referendum in Quebec, and it’s obviously what Cameron had in mind in his negotiations with Salmond on the Scottish referendum. As for Catalonia and Euskara, the 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.