In other parts of the world, separatist movements are usually violent (e.g. 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 hold 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. They are self-governing in most matters except defence and foreign affairs, they have their own budgets, and they maintain separate education systems and cultural institutions.
What really drives the separatism is emotion, which is why popular support for it is so soft. Rectifying the historic defeat of (insert name of 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. Nationalist leaders therefore always promise that independence will change nothing important on the economic front.
The way they do this in both Scotland and the separatist regions of Spain is by insisting membership in the European Union would pass automatically to the successor state. The opponents of secession, however, argue that there’s nothing automatic about it.
Recently, when Scotland’s First Minister, Alex Salmond, agreed to the terms for the 2014 referendum with the British government, Spanish Foreign Minister Jose 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 (like Spain, for example) could veto it.
“In the hypothetical case of independence,” he said, “Scotland would have to join the queue (for EU membership) and ask to be admitted, needing the unanimous approval of all member states to obtain the status of a candidate country.” The European Commission president, Jose Manuel Barroso, also said in September that an independent Scotland would have to apply to join.
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. Alas, he was lying.
It has become known that Salmond had not actually 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 British Prime Minister David Cameron, where he had to agree 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” at all.
So it’s now quite unlikely independence will win in the Scottish referendum. As for Catalonia and Euskara, the national parliament in Madrid must approve of any referendum on separation, and the current Spanish government has no intention of doing that. So it’s mostly just hot air and hurt feelings, really.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.