Why international interdependence has reduced the costs of secession

As countries collaborate more and more, there is less and less need to band together in big national units.

Lorenzo Piccoli
8 July 2014

Active seccesionist movements in Europe/Wikimedia

Boundaries in Europe may appear absolute, but there are still occasional reminders they are not. The debate on secessionism has been reinvigorated by the imminent Scottish independence referendum, whose outcome could radically undermine the terms of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. It is not the first time that a secessionism crisis has created the conditions for a new state to emerge from a previously established political union. In Europe the majority of countries that were created over the last century has emerged from the disruption of established political unions. However, the breakdown of Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union bears little resemblance to the situation that is currently under discussion in the United Kingdom and with the debates on independence that are under way in Spain, Belgium, and Italy. While there is little doubt that these contemporary forms of self-determination claims have deep historical roots, they have not been caused a sudden change in the internal economic, political, or social conditions of the state. The puzzling question is why the political leaders of these regions are now successful in translating their long-term discontent into explicit demands for secession. The question is, in other words, what conditions allowed secessionism crises to gain momentum across Europe.

There are different answers to this question. Some have argued that the consequences of economic crisis have fuelled the flames of secession. Others have suggested the negative attitude of the central governments in power in the last few years has made a difference in most of these countries. These arguments help explain why the dream of nationhood is now being translated into a secession crisis across Europe. Yet, there is one crucial aspect that the debate on independence referendums has relatively overlooked, taking it for granted or treating it as something of marginal importance only. This concerns the international context and whether it has created more favourable conditions for secession. In this article I will explain that the changes that have occurred to the international environment in the course of the last twenty years have greatly contributed to turn secession into a viable political option for regions and their political leaders. My argument, in short, is that the contemporary international context has decreased the benefits that were previously associated with membership to a larger sovereign nation-state and has therefore contributed to augment both the desirability and the feasibility of secession.

A system where territorial adversaries no longer threaten each other

There are two components of this argument: the first is about international security, the second is about international economy. The first claim I want to defend is that changing conditions of international security have facilitated claims of secession. Many political unions were initially established under the pressure of external or internal security threats. Federations and confederations such as the United States, Argentina, Canada, Germany, and Switzerland are all examples of states that came together to overcome military tensions. Also the European Community was established with the explicit purpose of ensuring peace in Europe following two world wars originating on the continent. The constituent units of these political unions have given up significant elements of their sovereignty to be part of a larger entity that can guarantee security and peace. Incidentally, these historical examples show that the perception of a common threat binds a union together: the stronger the enemy, the more likely it is for the constituent units to perceive their common interests and entertain a union despite having to pay the price of a loss of sovereign power.

Nowadays, however, security threats are more blurred than they used to be in the past. In today’s western world, defence alliances have increased the feeling of security of small states. In its white paper ("Scotland's Future: Your Guide to Scottish Independence"), for instance, the Scottish Government explains its view that “NATO membership is in Scotland's interests, and the interests of our neighbours, because it underpins effective conventional defence and security co-operation”. This alliance implicitly acknowledges the inability of states to protect their own security: size, military strength and population have ceased to be crucial factors for the survival of a territory. In Europe, in particular, security threats have fallen dramatically since the end of the Cold War. The invention of nuclear weapons, complex interdependence and the role of the United States as a global hegemon have undermined the view that security could be achieved only through a large national army. In fact, it is not by accident that most secessionist movements in today’s world are mobilizing in Europe, where military defence is no longer perceived as a crucial necessity for states. In the report on Security in Scotland, with or without constitutional change, experts have showed that territorial adversaries no longer threaten western European states existentially and that the old Westphalian notion of sovereign state security is increasingly anachronistic. The leaders of seceding regions like Scotland realize that the lack of serious international threats and the presence of strongly interdependent alliances create more favourable conditions for the secession of a region from larger states.

A more interdependent economic system

The changing international economic system is also conducive to secession crises. Historically, large economies of scale appeared more appealing than isolationism. In fact, in 1698 the nobles of the Kingdom of Scotland tried to elevate their country to a world trading nation by establishing a colony called "Caledonia" on the Isthmus of Panama. The colonization scheme failed and nearly bankrupted the country. Within a decade Scotland had signed the Act of Union with England to create the United Kingdom of Great Britain. Back in the 18th century, the Scottish leaders considered that sharing the benefits of being part of a major power was the only way for a dignified economic survival. In today’s interdependent economic system, instead, small European economies with similar geographies to Scotland are able to maintain both economic stability and growth.

It does not follow that smaller is automatically preferable: small countries are not necessarily better off than the others, as they remain more vulnerable to economic shocks. In 2008 the British government had to bail out Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) and HBOS, whose combined liabilities were more than 13 times Scottish GDP. Nonetheless, an independent Scotland would still be likely to remain deeply integrated with the global economy and receive support from international partners. Indeed, this is also the reason why membership of the European Union (EU) is one of the crucial factors at stake in the debate on Scottish independence. While the UK Government has recognized that the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the G8 and G20 membership would be largely unaffected by Scottish independence (see report on Devolution and the implications of Scottish independence), membership of the EU remains a more complicated affair. While there are many questions about Scotland’s position within the EU that remain to be clarified, it has been recently pointed out by Michael Keating that “it is in nobody’s interest to throw Scotland out of the single market – not Scotland, the rest of the UK, the other member states, business or anyone would gain from this”. In the end, the notion that an independent Scotland would be automatically excluded by the EU is problematic to implement, as well as complicated to justify on the basis of democratic and normative principles.


Secession poses many hypothetical questions. However, the recent evolution of the international system has clearly diminished the uncertainties related to the withdrawal from a previously established political union. In particular, the fall of security threats and the rise of international economic interdependence have contributed to reduce the benefits of membership to a larger state community. Security and economic concerns used to be part of high politics, and these in turn were responsibility of large and powerful nation-states. As globalization blurred the boundaries of security and economics and created a more permeable environment, these concerns have faded. As a result, even small regions understand it is now possible to pursue secession at a much less costly price than before.

These conditions contribute to galvanize the hopes of those who support secession, but they also have another important effect: they contribute to change the meaning of independence itself. Scotland is, once again, a very powerful example of these changes. The political leaders who support secession talk about keeping five of the six unions, including – crucially – the monetary union. This is a very interdependent idea of independence. In short, the new context has contributed to a forging of a new understanding of what secession actually means.

It is for this reason that the debate surrounding the Scottish referendum on independence and, more generally, secessionism in the Western world should not overlook the crucial importance of the international context in making secession a viable political option. Indeed, newly independent regions would have a very tough life surviving on the world stage, but nowadays they can achieve a level of security and economic well-being that unthinkable until a few years ago. It follows that if they really want to convince citizens that staying together is the best option, defenders of the political union in the United Kingdom, Spain, Italy, and Belgium should stop running negative campaigns that labour on the dire consequences of separation. In Scotland, pursuit of this strategy merely enables the nationalists to present the referendum as a choice between Britain and Scotland rather than competing visions of Scotland.

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