Tomorrow's Economy

The secession conundrum

24 February 2016

Uncertainty over future EU membership has recently proved an obstacle for separatist movements within EU member states – but do they present a wider threat to the solidity of the EU?

Teona Surmava

Separatist movements across the EU have gained momentum in recent years. Despite the many successes of European integration, the bloc still has deep internal divisions. EU solidarity has been tarnished by the growing appeal of nationalistic movements. These manifest themselves both as Eurosceptic movements and as national independence movements.

A crucial element of these centrifugal forces has been the economic crisis in Europe, which has fanned the desire for autonomy in economically viable regions. Separatist movements now strive for autonomy in Italy, Belgium, and France – but most notably in Spain and the United Kingdom.

The cases of Catalonia and Scotland are examples of modern European separatism. Independence movements in these regions regard themselves as European in nature, believing that national independence within EU structures will bring political and economic benefits.

In September 2015, Catalans voted in a decisive regional election billed as a ‘de facto referendum on independence’. Pro-independence parties in Catalonia won an absolute majority in the region’s 135-seat regional parliament. Following the result, Catalan lawmakers voted on a plan to achieve independence from Spain by 2017.

One year before the Catalan regional elections, Scotland held its own independence referendum. More than 2 million voters (55.25 per cent of the total) voted to remain in the United Kingdom. Throughout the referendum, Scots were encouraged to vote against independence by a coalition formed by Britain’s three largest political parties.

Catalonia, as Spain’s most powerful economic region, accounts for a fifth of the country’s economic output. It has long been part of Spain, but the region has deep roots as an independent state from the 11th century and still preserves its language, culture, and autonomous government. As for Scotland, by the 19th century it found itself as one of the most important manufacturing hubs in the British Empire.

“We aspire to become a state and an ally of the states in Europe and in the world” said Raul Romeva, a former Green MEP who led Catalonia’s separatist coalition in the elections of September, 2015. That statement sums up what separatists in Catalonia and Scotland wish to achieve: establishing normal state-relations with other states in Europe, without a larger unit forming an obstacle. “A perfect situation would be like the referendum in Scotland”, said Romeva.

Drawbacks of successful secession

It bears mentioning that among the arguments for Scotland staying in the UK was the uncertainty of it being able to remain in the EU. The logical question arises in the relationship with independence: is the existence of the EU an obstacle for independence movements within EU member states? To analyse possible challenges facing breakaway regions, one must consider the legal and political barriers.
One of the major obstacles for subnational entities attempting to achieve independence and join the EU as a separate state is the silence of EU treaties on this issue. The EU treaties indeed provide procedures to join or even leave the union, but do not identify steps for how “breakaway” regions can remain in the EU after secession.

Article 49 of the treaty of the European Union clearly states that any European country sharing the core European values envisaged by Article 2 can apply for membership. While under international and EU law regions would lose their EU status after secession and have to re-apply for union membership, proponents of independence seek to challenge this idea. They claim that if the secession is a result of democratic processes, the newly established state has a right to apply for EU membership.

Another argument by proponents is that, from a pragmatic point of view, existing EU member states should be willing to keep a new state inside the Union if it previously was part of the EU. However, by that same logic, member states should also be willing to prevent internal erosion of the union’s territorial integrity.

Furthermore, since one of the key elements of the EU is enlargement, advocates of independence believe that it would enlarge if separatist regions leave EU and re-apply for membership. However, this actually means the EU would fragment. As the union evokes goal of establishing “an ever-closer union among the peoples of Europe”, fragmentation is at odds with this principle.

From a procedural standpoint, the possibility for a region to rejoin the EU without achieving an agreement with the existing members would conflict with the CJEU’s pronouncement that an accession treaty must be reached between the existing states and the newly joining state.

Notably, proponents of secession argue that instead of using traditional enlargement procedures, Article 48 can be used. A solution offered by Article 48 is the possibility to amend the EU treaties. The treaties could then be translated in a way that allows for a separatist region’s post-independence membership. But in order to launch accession procedures with the EU on its own behalf, the separatist region should be internationally recognised as an independent state at the outset. Therefore, it is problematic whether all member states, and especially those having separatist movements would be willing to do so. This gives significant power to the member states struggling with separatism to derail independence movements within their territory.

As for the political and economic difficulties, it should be addressed that the denial of EU membership would entail the newly-independent state losing EU benefits, which might create long-term economic challenges. Losing access to the euro currency, membership in the European Economic Area, and the benefits of open borders are serious concerns. As Connor Pfeiffer argues, “the prospect of these difficulties was a potent weapon deployed by the no-vote coalition in Scotland.”

Independence movements threaten the solidity of the EU, which has already been undermined in recent years by the economic crisis, fiscal problems in Greece, and the high possibility that Britain might leave the EU. There are serious concerns that Catalonia’s very public movement towards independence could fan the separatist flames in regions of Italy, Belgium, Germany, and Scotland. Even if Catalonia and Scotland break free, either would be unlikely to gain membership in the European Union or be recognised internationally. Furthermore, their independence could lead to the further fragmentation of the EU through a domino effect.

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