Brendan McKee has written a thought-provoking article about why some secession movements are applauded while others are derided. Europa United’s Frances Cowell adds to Brendan’s analysis.

Brendan McKee’s use of the Dion framework, comprising four elements, fear, confidence, identity and legitimacy, is certainly a useful way of applying reason to the often emotional question of why this secession movement failed while that succeeded.

The first two elements are clear: fear of remaining part of a state that may harm the interests of the sub-state and confidence in succeeding as an independent state.

The third, shared identity, normally drawn from a combination of a shared history, tradition and language, is intuitive, and Scots and Catalans are good illustrations, with distinct cultures, and in the case of Catalonia, language. Spoken Catalan is unintelligible to most Spanish-speakers, unless they have learned it. But is it suppressed in Catalonia? On my many visits to different parts of the province, I see signs systematically displayed prominently in Catalan, with Spanish, English and occasionally French translations alongside. People routinely speak Catalan and my frequent conversations with Catalan friends have never hinted at suppression. So I wonder in what respect Brendan believes Catalan to be suppressed.

His fourth criterion is intriguing, because it seems to confound legitimacy with legality. The two are related, to be sure: as he mentions, legality can confer legitimacy. But I would argue that they are not interchangeable. Legitimacy is generally a question of opinion, while legality is binary: either something complies with prevailing law or it doesn’t. And legality is not the only element that can confer legitimacy: fear and confidence can too – as can a history of prior statehood.

The Catalonian referendum was illegal, because the government of Mariano Rajoy refused to authorise it. But its lack of legitimacy, I would argue, stemmed less from its illegality than from the low (43%) turnout in the referendum, which resulted in a final vote of 40% of eligible voters in favour of independence – well below any reasonable threshold for such a major decision. I would agree with Brendan that heavy-handedness by the Spanish government following the referendum lent the movement legitimacy that it lacked before the vote. I would also argue that the first two elements were missing in Catalonia, which is probably why the independence movement lacked popular support – at least up to the time of the referendum. Catalans are neither oppressed nor otherwise mistreated by the government in Madrid and it is far from clear that Catalonia would be viable as an independent state. Lack of genuine fear and confidence sapped it of legitimacy.

The Scottish referendum on independence in 2014, by contrast, was legal, as it had obtained the necessary approval from the parliament in Westminster; but many viewed it as not especially legitimate, partly because many of the claims of those campaigning for independence were dubious, for example, that Scotland would easily obtain EU membership, when the EU had clearly indicated the contrary; and that they would be able to continue to use sterling as their currency, when the British government in Westminster had stated clearly that they would not. Most would agree that Scots also, as Brendan points out, lacked fear of remaining part of Britain, and confidence of being a viable state on their own.

Should Scotland seek independence from a post-Brexit Britain, the calculation may be quite different, and this illustrates the difference between legality and legitimacy nicely. Scotland’s claim to a distinct identity is unchanged and it may be no more confident of viability as in independent state, though this could depend on how it perceives its chances of quick membership of the EU. A referendum is quite likely to be refused by the parliament in Westminster, rendering it illegal. But it could still be widely perceived as legitimate, and this legitimacy would stem from, among other things, a newly-palpable fear of remaining part of post-Brexit Britain. In 2016, 62% of Scots voted to remain in the EU, and they will argue, reasonably, that their wishes will have been ignored. Any heavy- or high-handedness on the part of the government in Westminster is likely to add to this fear, and hence legitimacy, even if a referendum is declared illegal.

I was also puzzled that Brendan mentioned Hong Kong, Taiwan and Tibet as cases of sub-states that seek to secede from China. While many in China view them as such, many, perhaps most, in the West view them as efforts to resist being subsumed by their giant neighbour. In Tibet’s case, many see China as a sort of occupying force. I would argue that this existential distinction renders those countries irrelevant to the question of secession. On the other hand, most would agree with him that the likelihood of Kurds and Kashmiris seeking their own states has increased significantly in recent weeks, ironically enough as a direct result of their parent states’ efforts to squash secession movements, which have added to their fear and legitimacy, although neither legality, identity nor viability have changed.

A good illustration of a legitimate – and legal – claim to secession was that of South Sudan from Sudan, following a referendum in 2011. As well as legality and legitimacy, fear, confidence (just) and a distinct identity were also present. Legitimacy derived largely from fear of the regime of Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir in Khartoum and its brutal treatment of South Sudanese, although I think it would be fair to say that the referendum’s legality contributed too.

The velvet revolution that saw both the Czech Republic and Slovakia quit Czechoslovakia is perhaps another example of all five factors working in tandem for a successful secession.

I think it is clear that legality and legitimacy are distinct but not entirely independent of each other. As Brendan points out, legality confers legitimacy on an independence referendum or movement. But it is not the only source of legitimacy – the other three elements ban be also.

Are all five elements needed? I will leave it to Mr Dion and other international affairs experts to decide.


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Frances Cowell
Australian-born and European by adoption, Frances Cowell writes and speaks at conferences about investment risk and governance, financial market stability and business ethics in financial markets – and the implications for the wider political economy. She believes Europe must urgently assume the lead in protecting and preserving liberal democracy, the rule of law and the multi-lateral institutions and alliances that it depends on.

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    1. Of course, as partly and quite rightly pointed out here, secessions are very different by their very nature. Using Brendan, Stephan Dion and my comments to Brendan’s article, a major oversight is the differences of status. Catalunya has never been a independent state, indeed never a state at all, it history under Roman occupation, the Visigoths, the kingdom of Aragon and on into Spain as a unified state does not qualify them ‘naturally’ for statehood. It is an aspiration. Quebec was part of a much larger French North America that shrank, then the British took from the French that remained in Canada that itself was separated from the various colonies that formed what is now the USA. Strictly speaking, it has never had statehood, although pre-European invasion its native people may have had demarcated territories we might compare with nation states. Nonetheless, in the modern concept no.

      Scotland is a country within a union. That is a union founded by two treaties in 1707, a little over a century earlier in 1603 there was a Union of Crowns that made the Scots Stuart king James IV, James i of England. In monarchical terms, England could be considered a royal possession of the Scots. In fact it never worked that way. In 1707 when the two Acts of Union were exchanged, Scotland retained its own legal system, the Kirk was still only the equivalent of the powerful Church of England and other lesser details such as marriage age being 16 to this day whereas that was varied throughout England and Wales between 21 and even 25 in some places, later to be 21 then down to 18 with electoral franchise on 1 January 1970. Politically, Scotland has already had 16 as the age of franchise for all but UK general elections and such events as the 2016 referendum. It is a country. That is the major difference and one of the reasons a transition to independent statehood is a viable proposition.

      Hong Kong, Taiwan and Tibet are indeed interesting. Hong Kong was ceded to the UK in 1842 as ‘compensation’ at the end of the second Opium War until 1898 when it was due to be returned to China, but they approved a 99 year lease that ended in 1997 with it return to China. What is happening at present is a byproduct of the years as a crown colony with greater citizen freedom than at present, including greater freedom of movement. Taiwan was under Japanese rule for 16 years until 1912, then China repossessed the island when it made peace with Japan as a republic. After WW2 the island was the place the USA evacuated the republican government to, helped set up as an exile and centre of resistance against the communist takeover of mainland China, then remained separated from China but to this day never accepted for UN membership despite many applications. So it is a former part of a nation that is in limbo, that given the opportunity has a constitutional commitment to rejoin a democratic republican China. It is a unique situation, but secession has been denied it because of its constitution that claims mainland China as part of its existence within a rightful republic.

      Tibet is a difficult one to compare as well. The Tibetan Empire included parts of modern China, later it was part of the Mongol Yuan Empire that has held it in once sense or another in one of the empires that eventually merged to make China as we know it in 1240. On the way to 800 years has obscured the Tibetan claim, indeed it cannot even claim to be exclusively ethnically ‘Tibetan’ or Buddhist, which is a common misapprehension. There are Muslims and have been christians since the Nestorians in the 13 century, plus a few Hindus and other minority older religions. Whilst the independence struggle for much of the 20 century has been particularly well presented by the Dalai Lama as the head of his branch of Buddhism and has wide support, it is not commonly well received as often imagined. Again history plays a powerful role against the claims being achieved.

      The African examples used and several others are good examples of both good and bad secessions. What they show best is that they are very useful for stopping conflicts once their existence is universally accepted, including the state seceded from giving full and unconditional approval, and that statehood can be assumed very quickly. Not always, but that would be a very time and much space consuming issue to go into here. Czechoslovakia was a relatively short lived state that had singularly or both seen the two states it became in Prussian, Polish, Austro Hungarian and other empires that became a state after WW2 but split quite peaceful in a manner that reflects of Norway leaving Sweden in 1905 over a two year transition into 1907 and full separation.

      Kashmiris and Kurds are complicated because of the ‘ethnic’ range of those people within the region they respectively consider a homeland. Neither has ever actually been an independent state in a modern political sense and then only as separate ethnic groups with a kind of autonomy in large empires. It remains to be seen how those aspirations will develop.

      It is a large an almost inexhaustible topic where one quickly moves on to Bretons, Corsicans, Basques, Sami, Carpathians and numerous other groups in Europe, then globally. One UN demographic predictor told of a potential 800 plus nation states instead of the 193 recognised by the UN and three not, thus 196, at present although there are other numbers above 200 already. So to the question: What does it take to secede? The answer is that there is no formula, no precise conclusions can be drawn and so the simplest response to the question is ‘Unknown’.

    2. To being I would like to say that I deeply appreciate your taking an interest in my piece enough to right a response to it, and I will do my best to respond. I will respond here point by point, so bare with me as my response is long.

      Firstly, I should note that Dion only lays out two criteria: Fear and Confidence. These criteria are of course developed from his attempt to answer the question of why secession is so difficult in established democracies and these two requirements do an effective job at answer that question. I added the second two requirements, a shared identity and legitimacy, to try and answer the larger question of what is required for secession is succeed in general. This is not of course to say there are not other factors that would lend themselves to helping secessionism succeed, such as charismatic leadership or a guiding ideology, but the four I mention in the article are simply the four I believe are indispensable to the success of a secessionist movement.

      Secondly, in regards to shared identity, there is much to be said. I tried initially to keep my criteria for this requirement as expansive as possible, and I stand by that decision. That said, what I have in mind for this requirement is that the community attempting to separate here be a nation, as the nation represents one of the single most coherent and developed forms of human community in the world today. I recognize that there are likely some cases where secessionism does not link up to a singular nation, certainly in the past there were other identities such as religion that could form the basis for a strong enough shared identity to initiate state-building, but I would wager that these are few and far between in the modern world. This association is also bolstered by a rather strict definition of secession which counts partition (territory splitting by outside forces) or decolonization (the gaining of independence by an overseas territory) as separate phenomenon. The concept of the nation and by extension the associated nationalism are therefore invariably linked to secessionism. I bring this up because the nation is itself partly based upon a particular national reading of history and politics, what I will call the national narrative. You ask me in what way Catalan culture is oppressed, but whether it is or not is a rather moot point. Rather, what is important is that the nationalist narrative is full of language stressing a history of Catalan oppression at the hands of Castilians, and it is this narrative history which is brought to the forefront when images of Spanish police attacking Catalan voters flashed across the screen in 2017. Just as the Bloody Sunday brought the Easter Rising to the minds of many Irish, the history of Francoism is linked to the modern actions of the Spanish state for many Catalans.

      That said, not all fears are simply narratively based. Setting aside the Spain’s heavy-handed response to Catalan separatism, consider your own anecdotal experience where you saw “signs systematically displayed prominently in Catalan, with Spanish, English and occasionally French translations alongside.” Is this not baffling, that a language like English would be placed at the same esteem as the native Catalan language? Or indeed, that Castilian Spanish would also enjoy pride of place? This was a battle fought during the Quiet Revolution in Quebec, where it was realised that French was losing ground to English not out of oppression, but rather because it was increasingly being viewed as less important. Steps needed to be taken to safeguard French against English, and these took the form of special laws that would ensure signage was predominately in French and that future generations would be taught almost exclusively in French. The policy was a success in the end and actually formed the basis for many of the language policies in Catalonia today. However, the fear that French would die, and French Canadian culture along with it, was real. This was needed to satisfy Dion’s ‘fear’ requirement, and indeed it is this same fear, based on the desire to protect Catalan culture using the powers of the state, that fuels much of the Catalan separatist movement today.

      As for legitimacy and legality, it is a very interesting area of discussion. I see very often people confusing the two, particularly in defense of certain state actions. This was the case with the Catalan referendum, where the prevailing argument used by Spanish nationalists was that Catalan separatists had broken the law and needed to be punished. In response, I wrote a short piece on Medium (https://medium.com/@brendanmckee/catalonia-spain-and-the-referendum-a1e89832d960) where I noted that legality and morality were two very different phenomenon. I must admit that I draw a great deal of my inspiration for my argument and my thinking on this matter in general from Dr. Danial Weinstock. His piece “Constitutionalising the Right to Secede” is, in my humble opinion, and excellent introduction this this topic. All of this is to say that, though I perhaps could have made my point more clearly, I think it is unfair to say that confound the two.

      Finally, I am not sure what you mean by “existential distinction renders…[Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Tibet] irrelevant to the question of secession”. The motivations behind a particular secessionist movement may inform the use of tactics that the movement employs or the shape of nationalist narrative that is employed, but it is not important when it comes to categorizing something as secession. Cases such as Quebec and Catalonia are both entities whose secessionism has also been based upon resisting “being subsumed by their giant neighbour”. Gaining the reigns of the state, after all, allows such entities to protect their culture and traditions, usually through control over cultural and immigration policy, in the face of an obstinate state that blocks other options forward.

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