By William Tucker
Contributor, In Homeland Security
The semi-autonomous region of Catalonia on Sunday voted overwhelmingly in favor of independence from Spain.
“According to the Catalan government, which announced the results early Monday, 90 percent of the ballots cast were for independence — with 2,020,144 people voting yes and 176,566 no,” the Washington Postreported. But turnout was low. More than 2.2 million people were reported to have cast ballots out of 5.3 million registered voters.
Spanish Authorities Deployed Additional Police to Prevent Secession Referendum
The Spanish government called the referendum illegal and unconstitutional. Authorities were determined to prevent the vote from taking place and deployed additional police to the region, while determined Catalans used a fleet of tractors called a “Tractorada” to help keep the polling places open.
Elsewhere, in the Kurdish area of Iraq, a referendum for independence on September 25 passed with well over 90% of the vote. Kurdish politicians say the referendum was just a first step toward independence and not a fait accompli.
Some Secessionist Movements Have Been Successful, Others Not
There are several other secessionist movements around the world, such as in Scotland, Western Sahara and the Philippines. Some have been successful in breaking away from the larger body politic such as Kosovo. However, successful secessions in the modern era have been difficult because the larger world powers have kept them in check.
The same world powers that work to keep existing borders also seek to break nations apart if it suits their national interests. For instance, the U.S. supported Kosovo’s independence from Serbia, while Russia moved to cleave two regions from Georgia and more recently annexed the Crimean Peninsula.
US Played a Key Role in South Sudan’s Split from Sudan
The creation of the nation of South Sudan is another recent example of a successful secession orchestrated by a major power. The United States played a key role in independence for South Sudan and Kosovo. But when it comes to Kurdish independence, Washington is openly opposed.
The U.S. has been a long-time supporter of the Kurdish people in Iraq. But backing independence for the Iraqi Kurds would mar relations with the new Iraqi government and our NATO partner Turkey.
This demonstrates a dichotomy in U.S. foreign policy. The United States and other nations in the international community wish to spread democracy as the ideal form of government. But democratic moves toward secession are not always supported.
The diplomatic conundrum stems from the desire to prevent conflict by protecting existing borders. Often, the international community either supports or demurs from border changes for that very reason, even if that stance interferes with the democratic ideal of self-determination.
This conflict is playing out within the European Union over Catalan independence. Although this is a Spanish-Catalan issue, the EU will not be able to ignore the post-referendum repercussions. Several EU nations are also grappling with this issue at the moment, while other nations could follow suit in the future.
Independence Movements Spread Beyond Europe
Naturally, Europe is not alone in facing burgeoning independence movements. Cameroon is in the midst of independence-related protests in two regions of that African nation. In Myanmar, the Rohingya crisis drags on. How the world powers deal with these demands for independence in their own backyard will influence outcomes elsewhere.
One aspect of these independence movements that is often lost in discussion is the issue of democracy as it applies to the nation from which the secessionists are trying to divorce themselves.
Secession for One Area Impacts Remaining Nation’s Economy and Politics
It does not appear, at least at first, that a secessionist movement claiming self-determination would – or should – consider the democratic aspirations of its host nation. Once a portion of a nation separates from an entire country, it is impossible for the rest of the country not to suffer some form of impact.
The Catalan region, which includes Spain’s second largest city of Barcelona, represents approximately 20 percent of Spain’s entire GDP. There are economic issues in addition to the political machinations to consider, although it is the political movement that begets those economic issues.
In Iraqi Kurdistan, the Baghdad government has not lived up to its obligations under the constitution to share the nation’s oil income. That is one economic issue among others that influenced the Kurds to hold their recent referendum. Furthermore, Baghdad would suffer from a true Kurdish split because the central government would lose access to the highly profitable oil fields in the north.
These secession issues are perpetual and not easily resolved. For now, at least, the world powers that have an interest in sustaining international borders will play a primary role in determining who gets independence and who does not.