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Independence driven by emotion, rarely pragmatism

The powerful emotions that produce the call for ‘independence’ have been increasingly seen on the streets of Barcelona is recent days. Those powerful emotions can drive people to extremes, in some cases including killing and dying. Yet for the high price often paid, independence movements are rarely successful and their outcomes are usually less than hoped for.

Catalonia’s recent vote for independence provoked a heavy-handed response from the government in Madrid. This has, in almost textbook style, conversely increased support for independence. The Spanish government’s response was wrong if the intention was to secure Catalonia’s loyalty, but perhaps the right response if the intention was to shore up falling nationalist support elsewhere.   

Independence movements commonly start with a small number of idealists, yet quickly grow when central governments respond with repression. In such circumstances, the desire for ‘freedom’ takes root and flourishes. The first responses, then, of central governments towards moves towards secession are critical to their outcome.

There are currently well over a hundred existing secessionist movements, many of which have produced bloodshed and trauma well in excess of possible practical gains. Yet despite their numbers, very few secessionist movements are ultimately successful, while the costs for governments imposing a nominal unity can be high for all involved.

With high costs and limited chances of success, secessionist movement are rarely about pragmatism and more about fervor. Even with popular support, secessionist movements rarely have the political or military capacity to impose their will on the state from which they intend to secede. Such limited examples of secessionist success that there are have relied on either external intervention, e.g. Bangladesh and Kosovo, or agreement by a weakened parent state, e.g. Eritrea, South Sudan. Timor-Leste falls achieved independence on the back of both factors.

Having overcome daunting odds of achieving independence, the success of post-secessionist states has, on balance, been poor. Bangladesh has struggled between periods of incapable civilian government, military coups and a state of emergency. Eritrea has been, since independence in 1991, an authoritarian one-party state with no political activity allowed.

Kosovo has been marked by divisive ethnic politics while South Sudan has been wracked by ethno-political fighting since soon after independence in 2011. Timor-Leste is a successful democracy, yet only survived intact due to international intervention ending civil conflict in 2006.

Of the world’s separatist movements, the most recent and notable, next to Catalonia, is Kurdistan. A Kurdish state would have a potentially sound oil-based economy and a very capable military.

Yet even an independent Kurdistan would require access to trade routes to export oil, at this stage blocked by its parent state, Iraq, and suspicion or hostility from neighboring Turkey, Syria and Iran. Kurdistan may continue to pursue independence, but it would likely have a more viable economic future as an autonomous state in a federated Iraq. 

Even when successful, the cost of independence can be high, in terms of destructive wars, lack of subsequent economic activity and independence leaders failing to translate as wise politicians and capable administrators. The skills needed to win independence are not those required to re-build and run a successful state.     

The record, then, of successful secessionist movements is, overall, poor. The rhetoric of freedom and reward is more usually reflected in little of either.

Catalonia is luckier than most, having an experienced set of politicians and administrators, its infrastructure remains intact and, for now, it has a vibrant economy. Its chances of success, should Madrid let it go, would be better than most.  

Yet what is now more practically needed in Catalonia, and for most other secessionist movements, is a relatively high level of regional autonomy. Loosening the ties that bind can ease tensions and make states more stable, if in federated or similar form, rather than being tightly controlled and therefore resented.

Spanish President Mariano Rajoy’s threat to revoke Catalonia’s autonomy is, therefore, precisely the wrong response for a leader wishing to quell secessionist demands. It was, after all, Spain’s constitutional court’s decision to restrict Catalonia’s existing autonomy that sparked the present calls for independence.

Spain’s governing People’s Party may strengthen its faltering support base by appealing to a wider nationalist sentiment in favor of state unity and imposing control over Catalonia. But imposed control will likely prompt further and more deeply entrenched separatist sentiment.

Given their vast differences, the fate of the handful of successful separatist movements cannot be used as indicators of an independent Catalonia’s future. But the drivers of separatism, and impediments to achieving independence, are shared.       

Catalonia has been at the forefront of Spain’s domestic battles, and it could be that the current push for independence will spark another. Should it come to this, the cost of such conflict would exceed any possible benefits, for both Catalonia and for Spain.

The question, then, is how both Spain’s national government and the Catalan independence movement can step back from a showdown. Failure to do so may mean the consequences of extremism on both sides may become irretrievable.