Academic journal article Boston College International and Comparative Law Review

The Zeitgeist of Secession Amidst the March towards Unification: Scotland, Catalonia, and the Future of the European Union

Academic journal article Boston College International and Comparative Law Review

The Zeitgeist of Secession Amidst the March towards Unification: Scotland, Catalonia, and the Future of the European Union

Article excerpt


On September 18, 2014, the people of Scotland voted to remain a part of the United Kingdom (UK) in a highly anticipated referendum.1 Of the 84% of the population that participated, 55.3% voted to remain with the UK, while 44.7% voted to become an independent country.2 The referendum threatened to end a 307-year long union with England and Wales and arrived only seventeen years after an earlier referendum, which granted the Scottish government broad new powers and a separate parliament.3 Alt- hough it offered some initial resistance to the referendum, the British government signed the Edinburgh Agreement in 2012, which transferred to Scotland the legal authority to decide on independence.4

Two months after Scotland's referendum, the people of Catalonia voted to make Catalonia independent from Spain in a non-binding referendum.5 Out of Catalonia's 7.5 million citizens, 2.3 million voted in the referendum, and over 80% of those who participated voted to create an independent state.6 As in Scotland, this referendum was not a sudden anomaly, but the culmination of a long-standing campaign for autonomy dating from the reign of dictator Francisco Franco.7 In 2013, the Catalan Parliament passed the Declaracio de Sobirania, or Catalan Sovereignty Declaration, which called for a referendum and announced that Catalonia was a sovereign state.8 The Spanish Constitutional Court suspended the proceeding, but the Catalan regional government subverted the order by declaring the referendum "unofficial" and therefore non-binding.9

There is currently no clear legal framework for sub-state self-determination.10 In the absence of definitive law, a crucial indicator of a sub-state's legitimacy is the attitude of other states or supranational organizations.11 For European sub-states, the European Union's (EU) reaction is particularly important due to the fact that it is the dominating force in European politics and it simultaneously represents the majority of European countries.12 Here, the EU stated that the outcome of Scotland's referendum was good for a "united, open[,] and stronger Europe."13 This statement suggests that the EU preferred Scotland as a part of the UK rather than its own country, and it cast doubt upon whether the EU would recognize an independent Scotland.14 Additionally, the European Commission discouraged Catalan separatists by stating that an independent Catalonia would not become part of the EU automatically, but would become a "third country" that would have to apply for EU membership.15 The EU has not, however, made a definitive statement on the legality of the secession referendums.16 Without a clear framework on sub-state independence, sub-state secession is treated as an internal issue for the state, which grants the governing state full control over the resolution of sub-state independence.17 Absent third party intervention, the natural tensions between the sub-state and the governing state can lead to excessive repression of self-determination movements, social turmoil, and violence.18

This Note explores two current sub-state secession movements in Europe to demonstrate the need for a coherent EU legal framework on sub- state independence and accession to the EU. Part I of this Note provides a historical and social background to the ongoing sub-state secession movements in Scotland and Catalonia. It also analyzes the economic, political, and legal tensions at work in the two European regions. Part II discusses the current international framework for addressing separatists and explores the role of the EU in catalyzing sub-state nationalism. Part III assesses the future of Scotland and Catalonia as sub-states and advocates for the creation of a legitimate framework that will justly address the resolution of separatist movements.

I. Background

The modern conception of self-determination has its origins in the rise of nationalist philosophies in the nineteenth century.19 The political manifestation of the doctrine, however, is most closely associated with Woodrow Wilson and the introduction of his Fourteen Points in 1918, which emphasized taking into account "the interests of the populations" of various countries and proclaiming the "opportunity of autonomous development" for European states. …

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