In a recent article in Social Europe, Andrew Watt and Steven Hill contend that the EU “should not fear” secession. The authors argue that Catalonia’s secession from Spain and other potential cases of secession could actually “enhance the European continent’s richness and diversity”, provided the EU can establish criteria “for a rational and forward-looking foundation for secession of regions”.
Whether the EU or its member states should be complacent in the face of calls for secession from some of the continent’s regions is open to question. Since World War Two, secessionist movements, particularly outside Europe, have usually gained popular support in regions facing severe human rights abuses by their own governments. In most cases, the ethnic, religious or linguistic composition of the region seeking secession has been different to that of the central government and its core supporters.
However, the new states that have emerged from these often bitter and protracted secessionist struggles have usually been riven by internal, ethnically-fueled conflicts (e.g. South Sudan) or have quickly become notorious for their flagrant violations of the human rights of their citizens (e.g. South Sudan, Eritrea and Timor-Leste). Sadly, recent history suggests that the creation of new states rarely results in the triumph of democracy, the rule of law or respect for individual and minority rights.
Is the situation fundamentally different in Europe? In their article, Watt and Hill cite the establishment of the state of Kosovo, in 2008, as “one of the best examples of the ‘just cause’ doctrine in action”. The authors observe that, “the drive toward independence [of Kosovo] has been propelled by a pattern of consistent human rights violations, discrimination and violence”.
Join our growing community newsletter!
"Social Europe publishes thought-provoking articles on the big political and economic issues of our time analysed from a European viewpoint. Indispensable reading!"
Columnist for The Guardian
Beginning in 1998, the majority ethnic Albanian population of Kosovo, then a province within Serbia, was subjected to escalating persecution and violence by the Milošević regime in Belgrade. At the time, fighting had intensified between Federal Yugoslav forces and the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), which was committed to Kosovo’s secession from Serbia and the Yugoslav Republic. Widespread assaults on Albanian civilians in Kosovo, which precipitated the flight of hundreds of thousands of Kosovar Albanians from their homes, served as the justification for NATO’s military intervention in 1999. This, in turn, allowed Kosovo to declare its independence in 2008.
However, many commentators, including the present author, are not inclined to view independent Kosovo as compelling evidence of the wisdom or innate justice of secession. Analyses of the human rights record of post-independence Kosovo make for uncomfortable reading. They reveal a disturbing pattern of physical assaults on and intimidation of journalists, chronic inter-communal tensions, on-going difficulties experienced by the country’s Roma, Ashkali, and Balkan Egyptian minorities in accessing public services, endemic corruption and the persistence of gender-based violence. To date, efforts to create a functioning parliamentary democracy in Kosovo have met with limited success, while the country’s woefully under-performing economy is heavily reliant on remittances from nationals working abroad. According to a summary compiled by the UN Development Programme, Kosovo’s economy poses a significant threat to the country’s long-term stability, while unemployment is a staggering 40.7% amongst men and 56.4% amongst women.
Oppressed peoples and minorities
The assumption that it is natural and even desirable that every ‘people’ should have their own state, in which they can freely determine their political destiny and preserve their culture, language and religious traditions, can be traced back at least as far as the early 19th century. However, experience in the aftermath of World War One, when multinational empires were dismantled to create new or expanded nation states, has led many scholars to question the underlying wisdom of this project. As the historian, Eric Hobsbawm, commented, the replacement of empires by ‘nation states’, which inevitably contained ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities of their own, solved virtually nothing: “[t]he main change was that states were now on average rather smaller and the ‘oppressed peoples’ within them were now called ‘oppressed minorities’”.
The international community’s recognition of Kosovo as an independent state, in 2008, was based on similarly flawed reasoning. In the late 1990s, ethnic Albanians constituted a persecuted and oppressed minority within Serbia. Now ethnic Serbians, whose numbers have dwindled to less than five per cent of the overall population, represent a vulnerable and isolated minority in independent Kosovo. Not the least of Kosovo’s dubious ‘achievements’, since ridding itself of Serbian domination, has been to harass and expel the bulk of its Roma minority.
Watch the latest Social Europe Video Podcast
Of course, an independent Catalonia would be unlikely to replicate the grave human rights abuses that have occurred in Kosovo. A sovereign Scotland, which gained its independence following a referendum amongst Scottish voters and without obstruction from Westminster, would be likely to pose even fewer problems.
However, one can be less sanguine about possible developments in an independent Corsica or in a sovereign Basque Republic, for example, in view of the history of secessionist violence in these regions and lingering resentments amongst the local population who had to endure repressive government policies. Spanish Basques, in particular, are unlikely to forget the Franco regime’s ruthless efforts to suppress Basque identity. Only an incurable optimist would consider Northern Ireland’s secession from the United Kingdom – and its possible union with the Irish Republic – as likely to usher in a period of peaceful and harmonious coexistence between Protestant Ulstermen and women and Irish Catholics.
Rather than fetishizing statehood and the creation of new nation states – an approach that, as in the inter-war era, is likely to impact negatively on order and stability in Europe – it would wiser and less hazardous to encourage other ways of enhancing “richness and diversity” in the EU and across the European continent. For the most part, the legal and institutional tools are already available in the form of minority rights. Most EU states are already parties to the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, which seeks to protect and promote regional or minority languages as “an important contribution to the building of a Europe based on the principles of democracy and cultural diversity”. Similarly, most EU states are bound by the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, which is based on the premise that “a pluralist and genuinely democratic society should…respect the ethnic, cultural, linguistic and religious identity of each person belonging to a national minority” and on the need to create “appropriate conditions” enabling members of national minorities “to express, preserve and develop this identity”. These are exemplary objectives.
Rather than encouraging regions to secede and to form independent states – a cumbersome, lengthy and uncertain process that is fraught with enormous political, security and economic risks – the EU, the Council of Europe and other regional organisations including the OSCE should encourage wider support for minority rights and appreciably higher standards of protection for minorities. Secession is far from the best or only means of enhancing “richness and diversity” in the European continent.