On Self-Determination and Secessionism

The current political crisis in Spain – caused on one side by the radicalization of the Catalan independence movement, on the other by the harsh countermeasures undertaken by the central authorities – shows once again the inherent dangers of illiberal or semi-liberal constitutional arrangements which deny the citizens the right of secession.

We may expect more conflicts between the right of self-determination and the constitutional provisions of centralized states. What happens in Spain today could happen tomorrow not only where large national minorities strive for independence, for instance, the Hungarians in Romania and Slovakia, but also in the UK and in Italy. A very brief insight in the recent history of secessions may help to gain a deeper understanding of one of the hottest topics of European politics.

In June 1991 Prague hosted an international conference, which was considered an important opportunity for a decisive step towards a free and united Europe after the collapse of the communist regimes.  On the table was a very ambitious plan drafted by the French President Francois Mitterrand and backed by the Czechoslovak President Václav Havel. As a foreign correspondent in Prague, I have covered the conference for an Austrian newspaper.

Mitterrand proposed nothing less than a „European Confederation“ which should associate all states of the continent, including Russia, in a common and permanent organization for exchanges, peace and security. It should be independent from the US, and a waiting room for the new democracies in Eastern and Central Europe not yet prepared or allowed to enter the 12-nation European Community. The final goal envisaged by Havel and Mitterrand was a free continent from the Atlantic to the Ural.  The borders would be opened, but they would not be changed.

1991 was a decisive year in the transition to a new order. Europe underwent its most dramatic changes since the end of the First World War. Only two new states had entered its political map between 1945 and 1990: Cyprus in 1960, under the pressure of a Greek underground army,  and Malta peacefully in 1964. Both islands  achieved their independence as part of the decolonization process inside the British Commonwealth.

But the dissolution of communist ruled multinational states gave birth to over two dozen new states. 15 former Soviet republics became independent, further six entities under Russian control are still waiting for international recognition.

Yugoslavia was divided in five states, from which other two states seceded. Interstate and civil wars were the midwives in this process which shook the Eastern and the South Eastern part of the continent. It threatened to spill over into Central Europe with the constitutional conflict between the two republics of the Czechoslovak federation.

Although, it was still uncertain in 1991 how the new European order could develop, there was a full agreement among Western policymakers that it had to respect the territorial integrity and the actual outer and inner borders of all post-communist states. After the collapse of communism, the specter of nationalism frightened the leaders of the West much more than anything else.  As recently declassified documents from the George Bush Presidential Library show, the US president and his advisers „did much to prolong the life of the Soviet Union, worried about the rise of the future Russian president Boris Yeltsin and the drives for independence by leaders of other Soviet republics“. (1)

Gorbachev, much applauded by Western leaders and media, evidently shared their worries. In January 1991, without formally declaring a state of emergency, he let the KGB take any measures to stop the Soviet republics on their way toward sovereignty and independence. Special units assaulted the Vilnius television tower, which was held by Lithuanian freedom fighters. Fifteen people died in the attack. Interior Ministry troops opened fire in Riga, the capital of the Latvian republic, killing four. Troops of the Interior Ministry and the Soviet army hand in hand patrolled the streets of Soviet cities.

Yugoslavia appeared still as a minor problem.

In June 1991, the US administration and the Western European governments were strictly against the partition of Yugoslavia which could have been considered as a precedent case for the Soviet Union and, subsequently, perhaps for Spain and the UK too. Instead of pressing the Yugoslav leaders towards negotiations for a peaceful division of the federation they insisted in preserving the status quo, thereby enhancing the power of the Serbian leader Slobodan Milošević (2) The Yugoslav war would finish only seven years later, in 1998. More than 120.000 soldiers and civilians would then have lost their lives.

Even when the war broke out the Western leaders tried to preserve the existing borders. Their ignorance was astonishing, they were completely overwhelmed by the situation. They knew little about the history and the ethnic, linguistic, cultural and religious particularities of the countries of the Western part of the Balkan peninsula, let alone of Eastern and South-Eastern Europe as a whole. The Iron Curtain not only divided Europe, it also concealed the substantial differences between the nations inside the communist bloc.

At the French embassy in Prague during Mitterrand’s and Havel’s conference, I remember  Jacques Lang, then French minister of culture,  asking a French diplomat: “Parlez vous tchéchoslovaque?“. Of course, he did not, and neither did the Czechs and the Slovaks. Moreover, neither did the Croats and the Serbs, the Slovenians, Macedonians and Albanians speak “Yugoslavian”.

National referenda in Slovenia and Croatia showed overwhelming majorities for leaving Yugoslavia. The Serbian minority in Croatia proclaimed its own statehood. Two weeks after the Prague conference, on June 25, Slovenia and Croatia declared their independence. On June 26, the Yugoslav Army bombed the Slovenian capital Ljubljana. In the same time the constitutional negotiations between Czechs and Slovaks stuck in a legal and political impasse. The end of Czechoslovakia was near. Only a year later the Slovak National Council, the regional parliament, would proclaim the sovereignty of the Slovak Republic.

And yet, in 1991 and 1992 the fiction of the immutability of borders continued, in politics as in the mass media. The Austrian ambassador in Prague complained that my rather skeptical articles on the survival chances of Czechoslovakia would harm the relations between Prague and Vienna. He was sure that the Federation would never break up. Czechs and Slovaks separated only a year later in a peaceful, business-like „velvet” divorce, motivated mainly by fiscal considerations.  The Slovaks wanted a confederation, and the Czechs were not ready to burden their economic transition with additional expenses.

Fortunately, Czechoslovakia was not yet in the European Union, otherwise the Commission would have tried with all means to block the separation as it did in the case of Scotland and Catalonia.

Madrid is playing an extremely dangerous game. If a constitution does not allow a legal and peaceful solution sooner or later violence will arise. “Armed self-determination movements are the primary cause of ethnic violence in the world today, and, since the 1980s, at least half of all ongoing civil wars in any given year have been secessionist. “(3)

Millions of people died because their right of self-determination was denied.

In 1991 the Badinter Arbitration Committee, set up by the Council of Ministers of the European Community, proposed the partition of Yugoslavia in independent states on the principles of the inviolability of the Yugoslav federation’s former internal borders.  The new states had to ensure the rights of the national minorities, but the minorities did not have the right to choose whether they preferred to stay or to leave.

The unintended consequences of this decision were vast. Denying the unhampered right of self-determination, the international community fueled the bloody war between Croatia and the Serbian insurgents in the Krajina, the guerrilla war of the Albanians for the independence of Kosovo and the still simmering conflicts between the Serbian populated northern part of Kosovo and the Government in Prishtina.

War and bloodshed probably could have been avoided or at least reduced if the international community had insisted on letting the people freely and without pressure from outside decide to which of the post-Yugoslav republics they wanted to belong. Or whether they wanted to set up an independent political unity for themselves. Such plebiscites should have been organized not on the basis of ethnic affiliation but on a strictly territorial principle down to the level of districts and villages in order to minimize the risk that their inhabitants would be assigned to a state against their will. This would have been particularly important for multi-ethnic Bosnia. One could object that such a procedure would have been complicated and time-consuming, however only these measure would have allowed to defuse the situation.

In any case, international policy makers could have known better had they studied the causal relation between violence, war and the rejection of self-determination which had been masterfully analyzed by the Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises. In 1927 von Mises published his book “Liberalismus“, which was regretfully translated into English only in 1962 as “The Free and Prosperous Commonwealth” (4).  It contains the most comprehensive study of the foundations of a free society in the tradition of classical liberalism.

In Chapter 3, entitled “Liberal Foreign Policy “, Mises emphasized the importance of the right of self-determination as “the only feasible and effective way of preventing revolutions and civil and international wars“. Right of self-determination, as defined by Mises, means “whenever the inhabitants of a particular territory, whether it be a single village, a whole district, or a series of adjacent districts, make it known, by a freely conducted plebiscite, that they no longer wish to remain united to the state to which they belong at the time, but wish either to form an independent state or to attach themselves to some other state, their wishes are to be respected and complied with.“

Mises referred this right to the inhabitants of every territory, not to a nation, an ethnic or a religious group: “The right of self-determination of which we speak is not the right of self-determination of nations, but rather the right of self-determination of the inhabitants of every territory large enough to form an independent administrative unit. If it were in any way possible to grant this right of self-determination to every individual person, it would have to be done.“

It should be noted, that there is only one state in Europe, which recognizes the right of self-determination in the Misesian sense, and that is the Principality of Liechtenstein. Article 1 defines the Principality as a State that is „based upon the principle of enabling the people residing within its borders to live in peace and freedom. “

Article 4 affirms one of the conditions of a life in peace and freedom. It reads as follows: „Individual communes have the right to secede from the State. A decision to initiate the secession procedure shall be taken by a majority of the citizens residing there who are entitled to vote. Secession shall be regulated by a law or, as the case may be, a treaty. In the latter event, a second ballot shall be held in the commune after the negotiations have been completed. “(5)

If we were to compare Liechtenstein’s with the Spanish constitution we arrive at a different situation. Section 1.2. of the Spanish constitution reads „National sovereignty belongs to the Spanish people, from whom all State powers emanate.“

In Section 2.: „The Constitution is based on the indissoluble unity of the Spanish Nation, the common and indivisible homeland of all Spaniards; it recognizes and guarantees the right to self-government of the nationalities and regions of which it is composed and the solidarity among them all.“

In other words: The Kingdom of Spain recognizes and ensures the right of self-government minus the right of secession insofar it does not contradict the will of the „Spanish people from whom all State powers emanate “.  The integrity and the interest of the Kingdom overrule the rights of the nationalities and regions.

Recognition for secession has been explicitly excluded through „the ruling of the Spanish Constitutional Court of September 2008 which stated that the only demos in Spain is the Spanish nation.“  In June 2010, the Constitutional Court struck down key elements of Catalan autonomy referring to the „indissoluble unity of Spain“. The government „only permits autonomous governments to hold referendums that have been approved by two-thirds support in the Cortes in Madrid. Those that have taken place in Catalonia have no legal validity. “ (6)

To name just a few states with still unresolved and potentially dangerous national minority issues, the Romanian, the Serbian and the Slovak constitutions have similar unitarian and centralist provisions. If the prevalent function of constitutional rule making is to reduce the risks that arise in political life those countries have still a long way in „optimizing constitutionalism” (7).

As long as the unhampered right of self-determination is not guaranteed separatist movements have no other choice but to go against the constitution. This was the case in almost all historical secessions, from Switzerland in the 13th century and the US in the 18th century up to the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia. As always in times of crisis legitimacy prevails over legality.

Unfortunately, the Spanish constitution still reflects the spirit of French 18th century absolutism, which inspired King Philip V. in reforming the monarchy. In the Spanish War of Succession, the Catalans had supported the Habsburg Archduke Charles against Philip, Duke of Anjou, the first member of the French House of Bourbon to rule as king of Spain. The Catalans were defeated, Barcelona capitulated on the 9th of September 1714, king Philip punished them by repealing their rights and introducing the centralist French system.

This was the end of many centuries of Catalan self-rule. From that time on Spain was a unified and highly centralized political entity. Franco’s victory in the Civil War 1939 saved the country from communism and militant atheism, but it was also a decisive victory of Spanish nationalism against the minority nations. For more than four decades Catalonia was governed by a military dictatorship, even the use of the Catalan language was prohibited. However, under the umbrella of the Catholic Church Catalan identity survived, and Catalan nationalism „re-emerged at the end of Franco’s dictatorship in 1975 more firmly rooted than before the civil war. “(8)

Classical liberalism was born in opposition to the predominant Absolutism of the 18th century.  It defends the right of self-determination against totalitarian and authoritarian regimes, on the right and on the left side of the political spectrum. Classical liberals argued for secession based on the notion of natural law, from which individual rights would arise, or they used – like Ludwig von Mises – utilitarian arguments. (9) From a liberal point of view, subsidiarity, decentralization and secession will open the road to freedom.

Obviously classical liberalism of all shapes does not see secession as an end in itself and does not support it under any circumstances. The Austrian-Hungarian monarchy, for instance, protected individual freedom and individual rights of its citizens far better than the national states, which came into being after the First World War. The point of reference is always the individual citizen and his right to choose. Small independent states have a lot of advantages, they are more peaceful, less protectionist, and more prosperous.  Hence small state means less state.

Self-determination is also an intrinsic part of the Catholic Church’s social teaching. In 1931 Pope Pius XI issued the encyclical „Quadragesimo Anno” against the increasing dangers for freedom in which he defined the principle of subsidiarity as follows:

„Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do.“(10)

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith specified in its „Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation“  (Libertatis conscientia) under prefect Joseph card. Ratzinger in 1986 that „neither the State nor any society must ever substitute itself for the initiative and responsibility of individuals and of intermediate communities at the level on which they can function, nor must they take away the room necessary for their freedom. Hence the Church’s social doctrine is opposed to all forms of collectivism. “(11)

According to a famous definition by Max Weber the state is a human community that successfully claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory, including the monopoly of taxing its inhabitants. It is in the interest of every political class to expand this territory if possible or at least to keep it as it is, exploiting its natural and human resources to its own advantage. Autonomist, separatist and secessionists movements not only question the legitimacy of the state, they threaten to withdraw a considerable part of its income too.

God had to inflict ten biblical plagues onto Egypt before the Pharaoh let his people go, as it is told in the Book of Exodus, the most ancient history of secession. But it is also written that Moses and Aaron had to overcome the resistance of a considerable part of the people of Israel rather reluctant to leave and still ready to work for the Pharaoh. Voices in the desert mourned the good old days when the people „sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full “. (12)

To leave a political community is never an easy decision. Secession is only the ultimate act of self-determination when all other options fail. It is expensive to build a state. In many cases geographical, geopolitical and economic considerations speak clearly against such efforts. Sometimes secessionist movements are simply instruments of foreign aggression. History knows several examples of „faked secessionism“, among them the insurgence of the Sudeten-Germans in 1938 ordered by Hitler, and the Soviet or Russian led and armed secessions in Abkhazia, Transnistria, the Crimea and in the eastern part of Ukraine.

National diversity and strong cultural distinctiveness alone are never sufficient to provoke secessions. As Western democracies are neither supposed to violate human rights nor to exercise discrimination on the ground of racial, national, cultural or religious diversity, there must be other reasons for the growing popular desire for independence in countries like Italy and Spain.

Catalonia is highly industrialized. Spain has 46,5 million inhabitants, 7,5 million live in Catalonia. Last year they generated 19 percent of the Spanish GDP and 26 percent of all Spanish exports. The regional GDP (204,2 billion Euro in 2015) is the highest in Spain. But unlike the Basque countries Catalonia does not enjoy autonomy. Powers that in federal states like Germany are shared between the central government and regional ones are monopolized by Madrid. Catalan tax payers transfer every year 17 billion Euro to the central government. No wonder that the idea of independence is gaining more and more support also among the immigrants. Almost 40 percent of the inhabitants of Catalonia were born abroad, half of them outside of Spain.

Charges of discriminatory redistribution thrive also in Italian secessionists movements. Lombardy transfers annually 54 billion to the government in Rome, Veneto 15 billion. By way of comparison: Bavaria, the German economic powerhouse, pays annually 5,4 billion Euro. Any question why secessionism threatens the unity of Spain and Italy, whereas it is no more than a folkloristic joke in federalist Germany?

Secessionism emerges and grows when centralized welfare states prevent federalization and continue to subsidize poorer regions by high taxation. Secessions turn into a political option when secessionist movements succeed in combining national or regional identities with the credible promise of decisive economic gains, as well as cultural and political improvements in the case of independence. But as the boundaries between autonomists and secessionists are fluid, pragmatic compromises between the central government and the regions are almost always and everywhere possible.

Canada succeeded in reducing the impact of Quebec separatism by changing the legislation, enhancing autonomy, allowing a referendum and promising that it would never use military force to block a secession. The UK too made it clear that it would accept the outcome of the Scottish referendum. In both countries, the secessionist parties were defeated. Nobody knows how a free and unhampered referendum in Catalonia would have ended. Given its short-sightedness and stubbornness the government in Madrid showed in the Catalan crisis it would be a miracle if the popularity of the secessionist option diminished.


(1) Plokhy, Serhii: The Last Empire.The Final Days of the Soviet Union, New York, 2014

(2) Gallagher, Tom: The Balkans After the Cold War. From Tyranny to Tragedy. London 2003

(3) Sorens, Jason: Secessionism. Identity, Interest and Strategy. Montreal & Kingston, 2012

(4) Mises, Ludwig von: Liberalism. In The Classical Tradition. New York, 1962

(5) Constitution of the Principality of Liechtenstein, 15 September 2003. http://hrlibrary.umn.edu/research/liechtenstein-constitution.pdf

(6) Dowling, Andrew: Catalonia Since the Spanish Civil War: Reconstructing the Nation. Eastbourne, 2014

(7) Vermeule, Adrian: The Constitution of Risk. Cambridge, 2013

(8) Dowling, ibid.

(9) Gordon, David (ed.): Secession, State & Liberty. New Brunswick, New Jersey 1998

(10) http://w2.vatican.va/content/pius-xi/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-xi_enc_19310515_quadragesimo-anno.html




(12) Moses II, Exodus 16,3


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