Alberto Mingardi  

A nice summary on secession

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Tim Sablik has an interesting literature review on secession on the Richmond Fed's "EconFocus." Sablik presents research relevant to the issue, including Alesina and Spolaore and Buchanan and Faith. He also deals with contemporary secessionist communities - like Catalonia and Scotland.

Sablik writes that "For secession to have the best chance of success, it takes consent on both sides." But of course that very rarely happens. The best (Perhaps only? I'd be interested in others) example of consensual "divorce" is Czechoslovakia.

Called the "Velvet Divorce," the secession was handled quickly and peacefully. But it's unclear what lessons from that event apply to today's movements. It was decided by leading politicians on both sides rather than popular referendum, which made it easier to reach agreement.

Sablik notes that the British government allowed the Scots to vote, whereas Spain ruled out any possible referendum for Catalonia. I suppose that we can compare the Scottish and the Catalonian secessionist movement insofar as their popular following and their political strength are concerned. Also, both nations are monarchies - which prompts another question. Is the royal factor increasing the likelihood of secession (because the reigning dynasty embodies the idea of a "foreign" domination) or decreasing it (because the monarch is a stronger symbol of unity that affects people's ideas?).
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The question why the ones were allowed to vote, and the others were not, is indeed a very interesting one.

In part, it may have to do with the fact that "Resistance can usually be expected if the parent country would be made economically worse off by a region leaving," as Sablik points out. Perhaps among the British, the perception that they had not much to lose by Scotland leaving was so widely accepted that the referendum was politically acceptable. In Spain, it is a different story. And yet Scotland has oil ("Paul Collier and Anke Hoeffler of Oxford University linked the rise of the modern Scottish secession movement to the discovery of that oil in the 1960s," Sablik reminds us). I'd bet that voters tend to believe natural resources are something not to be separated from, inasmuch as it is possible.

In part, it may have to do with the fact the British Empire has long been falling to pieces, and so British voters are not particularly troubled from the idea of losing one more.

In part, it may have to do with the recent history of the UK and Spain. England takes pride in her legacy of liberty. Spain passed through the dictatorship of Franco. Its democratic constitution is quite recent and its leadership may feel that a Catalonian secession may be hitting too hard a still fragile body.

Both the Scots and the Catalonians promised their loyalty to the European Union. You would think that, if a transnational body like the EU has any sense at all, it would be at least somehow "regulating secession" within its territories, allowing for a constructive and properly ordered exercise of the right to vote yourselves out of a country. That doesn't happen. The EU is a cartel of states as they are, for which any change may sound frightening.


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COMMENTS (11 to date)
Brett Champion writes:

To a certain extent, the dissolution of the Soviet Union can be considered a consensual secession. The Soviet government itself was opposed to the breakup, but the governments of the constituent republics mostly supported it. In fact, the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus met and agreed to the dissolution, which is what effectively killed the Soviet Union. Not only that, but they also negotiated what was to follow, namely, the Commonwealth of Independent States.

Matt Moore writes:

"In part, it may have to do with the fact the British Empire has long been falling to pieces, and so British voters are not particularly troubled from the idea of losing one more."

This doesn't really follow. Even now, a majority of Scots also self-identify as British. In fact, the average Scot probably did more to build the Empire than the average Englishman.

I may be wrong, but I think generally, if you think you are Catalan, you don't also think you are Spanish. But Scotsmen happily hold a dual identity.

Philo writes:

I think Singapore split off from Malaysia by mutual consent.

Pajser writes:

According to UN General Assembly Resolution 1514, the nations have the right on self-determination. That concept was the formal base for decolonization. I advocate that right, although I do not like that people practice it. Every secession is reduction of freedom of all citizens of original state, but at this point of human development, it is almost always lesser evil than staying in the community in which people do not want to belong.

Robert writes:

Matt is correct - Scotland is not and never was a colony. In a very fundamental sense Britain is England + Scotland. This is why its so important when discussing Scottish independence to get the difference between Britain and England clear.

Another thing to get clear is that Scotland didn't lose it's independence when in joined England in the Union. It retained a separate legal system, educational system and church.

The separate church is often overlooked today, but it was of vital importance in Scottish history. During the wars of independence in the 13th and early 14th century it was the Scottish church that kept alive the dream of Scottish independence. Even into the late 20th century the General Assembly of the Kirk of Scotland was seen as speaking for the nation.

Religion - specifically protestantism - was one of the glues binding the union together. Even before the empire the British state's primary purpose was to secure the supremacy of the protestant religion. This in fact goes back to even before the union to the solemn league and convenant of 1643, and to why King James VI of Scotland was accepted as King James I of England in 1603. The decline of religion is the most underrated reason for Scotland and England drifting apart.

And it wasn't "the Scots" who promised loyalty to the EU - it was the Scottish National Party. The people of Scotland will get their say on the EU in the upcoming British referendum on EU membership, probably in September 2016. If the UK as a whole votes to come out and the Scots vote to stay in then Scotland will vote for independence within the year.

Miguel Madeira writes:

The secession of Eritrea could be considered consensual, in a very peculiar way: the eritrean rebels defeated the ethiopian army, but instead of proclaiming an unilateral secession, they put a new government in charge of Ethiopia, and then the new ethiopian government "accepted" the independence of Eritreia.

About Singapure, I think it was more an expulsion (where Malaysia gave the independence to Singapura against the Singapura's will) than a secession by mutual consent

Fazal Majid writes:

The EU is wise not to take a position on secession. Many EU citizens feel it has too many powers and is trampling on the sovereignty of the member states. It doesn't get more of a question of sovereignty than a referendum on independence.

That's why all other EU countries were studiously careful not to be seen taking a position for or against on an internal matter for the British and Spanish, with the notable exception of Spain saying it would veto adhesion of Scotland to the EU (the UK did not reciprocate).

ThomasH writes:

The secession decisions are complicated by the position of the EU that the price of access to the EU market is adoption of the Euro.

Rrobert Schadler writes:

Kudos to Alberto for bringing attention to an important, but vexing question. Yet it is difficult for economists to do more than speak about the peripherals surrounding it. Economists generally take "preferences" as a given and then analyze the effects of those preferences in the market. (Ford v Toyota; Cheerios v corn flakes; renting v ownership.)
On what basis should an economist tell Catalonians or Scots how to feel about their political identity or what nation they belong to? Or, put differently, tell a country where the political borders should be drawn?
Economists generally view political borders as distortions to the market -- and therefore want to minimize their effects (as in free trade). There are "efficiencies" in size, as well as any status quo, but also inefficiencies. Comparing the two requires the difficulty of assessing the intensity and scope of the desire to secede, which waxes and wanes. Keeping a geographic coherent group with an intense desire to secede is very costly and generally results in a stronger central government (as happened in the United States during and after the War of Southern Secession).

Nathan W writes:

Canada's "Clarity Act" defines the conditions under which Quebec could secede. Among other things, it makes it tougher than a simple 50%+1 majority.

Robert brings up an interesting point about Scotland and its getting to keep its church. I think it is worth noting that the Church of Scotland (Presbyterianism) is an early example of democracy: congregations could vote to hire and fire ministers, and ministers at the local and regional levels constituted electoral councils with elected leaders.

marko writes:

Serbia and Montenegro split peacefully in 2006, after Montenegro independence referendum.

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