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
A case in point is the various separatist movements in the
European Union. Scotland will be holding 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.
The Scots get more money back from the central government in
London than they pay in taxes, while Catalonia and the Basque
country (Euskara, in the Basque language), claim that they
contribute more to Madrid than they receive. But the sums are
relatively modest, and in any case it is not necessary to
break up the country in order to renegotiate fiscal
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
The way they do this in both Scotland and the separatist
regions of Spain is by insisting that membership in the
European Union would pass automatically to the successor
The opponents of secession, however, argue that there's
nothing automatic about it.
The arguments are not just directed at the home audience.
Last month, when Scotland's First Minister, Alex Salmond,
agreed 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.
This was furiously disputed by Alex 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, and would not even
have to adopt the euro.
Alas, he was lying.
Late last month, it became known that Mr 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 Mr Salmond came in his negotiations
with British Prime Minister David Cameron, where he had to
agree that 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.
The most famous formulation of this question was in the 1995
Quebec referendum on secession from Canada: "Do you agree
that Quebec should become sovereign after having made a
formal offer to Canada for a new economic and political
partnership within the scope of the Bill respecting the
future of Quebec and of the agreement signed on June 12,
" Not exactly clear, is it?
That referendum was very close, but in 2000 the Canadian
federal government passed a law generally known as the
"Clarity Act". It said that negotiations between the federal
government and any province on secession should only follow
"a clear expression of the will of the population of a
province that the province cease to be part of Canada".
This requirement would not be met, it added, if the
referendum question "merely focuses on a mandate to negotiate
without soliciting a direct expression of the will of the
population of that province on [independence]", or if the
question "envisages other possibilities ... such as economic
or political arrangements with Canada, that obscure a direct
expression of the will of the population on [secession]".
This law drastically reduces the likelihood that the
separatists could win any future referendum in Quebec, and
it's obviously what David Cameron had in mind in his
negotiations with Mr Salmond on 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 made it abundantly clear that
it has no intention of doing that.
So it's mostly just hot air and hurt feelings, really.
• Gwynne Dyer is an independent London