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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 22 June 2018

Independence movements gain traction from global crises

In Catalonia, Scotland and Kurdistan external factors have prompted a change of thinking among secessionist leaders.

Women with "esteladas," or Catalonia independence flag, walk along the old quarter in Girona, Spain, Monday, Oct. 2, 2017.
Women with "esteladas," or Catalonia independence flag, walk along the old quarter in Girona, Spain, Monday, Oct. 2, 2017.

From Barcelona to Erbil and Edinburgh, secessionist movements appear to be gaining ground in their bids for independence from central governments.

Members of the Scottish National Party were present in Barcelona on Sunday as electoral observers, underscoring the ideals and ambitions for self-determination that Catalans and Scots share. Scotland voted against independence in 2014 but Brexit has thrown up the prospect of another referendum to break away.

The Catalan independence referendum also comes less than a week after Iraqi Kurds voted by a majority of 93 per cent in a referendum of their own in favour of independence.

In all three instances, external factors have prompted a change of thinking among secessionist leaders. For Catalonia and Scotland, the same global event created the conditions to move towards full independence.

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“In both cases, strong regionalist movements that initially aspired to self-government within the national state turned to the goal of independence in the aftermath of the global financial crisis,” according to a paper presented by Jonathan Hopkin of the London School of Economics.

In a similar way, the momentous geopolitical shifts since the start of the Arab uprisings in 2011 have created conditions for what Renad Mansour, writing in The Journal of International Security Affairs, called “the Kurdish moment”. Kurds in Iraq have also been emboldened most recently by the fight against the ISIL.

“They're using their efforts against Daesh as an alibi that they deserve their own state, and citing that Iraq can't protect them in the future,” said Mohamed Hineidi, an independent Levant consultant based in Abu Dhabi.

However, like many secessionist movements, Iraqi Kurds face opposition from the Iraqi state — as well as neighbouring countries.

“The opposition from Iran, Turkey, and Baghdad makes it very difficult for the KRG [Kurdistan Regional Government] to become independent,” said Mr Hineidi. “Its geography doesn't help at all, being landlocked — it has to rely on either Turkey, Iran and Iraq for its oil exports, and even trade and imports in the future.”

As Iran and Turkey have Kurdish populations of their own, both countries are fearful that independence for Iraqi Kurds could threaten the social and political fabrics of their states in a domino effect.

Analyst generally highlight the importance of economic prosperity to secessionist movements. Among pro-independence activists in Catalonia, the question of economics is central to their eagerness to secede.

The Catalan economy accounts for about 20 per cent of Spain’s GDP, but unlike the Basque and Navarre regions, Catalonia pays its taxes to the central government and then receives disbursements in return to spend locally.

Catalonia and Scotland’s quest for independence raises tricky questions about European integration. Spain opposes secession because it is illegal under the Spanish constitution that all Spanish regions — Catalonia included — agreed upon in 1978. If the Catalans were to unilaterally declare independence, Catalonia would have to apply for membership to the European Union, which the Madrid government would certainly oppose.

Scottish nationalists, meanwhile, are eager to build on the discontent born of the financial crisis, and more recently Brexit, to leave the United Kingdom and maintain its EU membership.

Given the complexities of European integration, Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon has already been told — by Spain no less — that it would have to “queue” for EU membership.

“Spain supports the integrity of the United Kingdom and does not encourage secessions or divisions in any of the member states. We prefer things to stay as they are,” Spain’s Foreign minister Alfonso Dastis said in March.

Both Catalonia and Scotland can look across the Atlantic for a cautionary tale about the potential risks of pushing for secession. In October 1995, Quebec voted against secession from Canada — but only just: 50.6 per cent to stay with Canada while 49.4 per cent voted to secede.

Quebec remained, indeed remains, part of Canada but at great cost. With investors and corporates jittery, 400,000 jobs were shifted to Toronto, which became the country’s new financial capital at the expense of Quebec’s capital Montreal.