WE’RE OUT OF HERE
Independence votes give states a splitting headache
Recent votes by Iraqi Kurds and Spanish Catalans on independence raise the question of the right of a region in an established state to leave to forge a separate existence. Across centuries this issue has cost an enormous amount of blood and treasure.
The vote organised by the Kurds was not hindered by the Iraqi government, which has refused to recognise its validity. In contrast, the Spanish government tried with considerable brutality to prevent any vote taking place in its province of Catalonia. It is now up to the Catalan parliament as to whether it confronts Madrid.
The most famous attempt at secession in modern history was the establishment of the Confederacy in 1861 by US southern states.
The federal government refused to accept the dissolution of the Union. After four years of civil war, costing more than 750,000 lives, the south failed in its bid for independence.
One of the lessons of that conflict was to demonstrate that part of an existing state will find it difficult to secede, even when prepared to use force in its efforts, without the assistance of one or more foreign nations.
Kosovo was able to break away from Serbia in the late 1990s only because NATO countries bombed the Serbian government into submission. It is true that most of Kosovo’s inhabitants were Albanian rather than Serbian and did not wish to be part of Serbia. But there are other countries in the Balkans where this ethnic breakdown continues to exist without any foreign intervention.
Kosovo was an unlikely candidate to form a separate state, given its population of two million and a fragile economy. Its separation also involved NATO nations in an agreement to dismember a legal entity in the form of Serbia. This is a precedent that most established countries would usually want to avoid.
Another region that achieved independence with outside assistance was Bangladesh, formerly East Pakistan, after India intervened in 1971 to stop the suppression of an independence movement by the Pakistani regime. There was little international sympathy for the Pakistanis because of the mass killings they had sanctioned in their eastern province.
In the absence of outside assistance, however, secession is likely to be difficult. The attempt by one of the Nigerian provinces, Biafra, to break away in the late 1960s failed after several years of savage civil war. More recently, the Tamils in Sri Lanka conceded defeat in the conflict they had been waging with the central government for decades.
All of this suggests that there is a considerable degree of chance in whether independence can be successfully attained. No doubt Kurds and Catalans are entitled to ask why should Kosovo have its independence but not them. But fairness and equity play a small role in the affairs of nations and the prospects of these two groups achieving independence in the immediate future appear slim.
What their efforts do underline is the continuing force of nationalism, despite the desire of organisations such as the UN and EU to destroy these sentiments. Last year EU president Jean-Claude Juncker said: “Borders are the worst invention ever made by politicians.” Yet the British vote for Brexit was a statement by that electorate in favour of national sovereignty.
The Catalans present an alarming prospect for the EU because there are other secessionist movements in Europe, including the Flemish in Belgium. Juncker may dream of a world without borders but some would not only like to have borders but to draw them more narrowly than they are now.