Scotland said no. On September the 18th the Scottish independence referendum took place and on the question of “Should Scotland be an independent country,” 55.3 percent out of the around 3.6 million votes were “No,” while 44.7 percent voted “Yes.” The referendum was the product of the Scottish Independence Referendum Act, introduced by the Scottish parliament in November of 2013 after an agreement was reached with the government of the United Kingdom allowing Scotland to vote on its future in the United Kingdom. The year after the passage of the Independence Referendum Act was politically tumultuous for Scotland. The main campaign for Scottish independence “Yes Scotland” and the opposition, “Better Together,” as well as many other groups, parties, media and public individuals were passionately involved in the public debate over why Scotland should or should not be independent. The debate revolved around many important economic and political issues if Scotland becomes independent country among which public expenditure, the possible currency that Scotland would use, EU and NATO membership. Although most of the popular polls showed a slight lead for those in support of secession, the outcome was unpredictable until the day of the referendum. Scotland voted against seceding, but despite this, the Scottish referendum has served as an encouragement to other regions within sovereign states in Europe that seek independence. However, the political situation and conditions in these countries may not be as accepting to the idea of secession of a region as those in the United Kingdom were in the case of Scotland.
On 19th of September, one day after the Scottish referendum, the Catalan parliament approved the Consultation Law. Defined as a non-binding self-determination referendum, it passed with 106 votes for and 28 votes against. This law will give the President of the Generalitat of Catalonia the right to hold a consultation on independence from Spain, which was scheduled for the 9th of November this year. The outcome of the referendum did not come as a surprise. Of the 41.6 percent voter turnout, 80.76 percent voted in favor of secession and only 10.07 percent voted against. This is not the first attempt for an independence referendum in Catalonia; unofficial referendums were held previously in 2009 and 2011 and while the participation rate was low, the outcome was an overwhelmingly in favor of independence.
Discontent has not been confined to the ballot box: In 2010 massive demonstrations were held in Barcelona as a result of the Spanish government curbing autonomy in Catalonia. In 2012, demonstrations broke out again, with protesters chanting the slogan “Catalonia, next state in Europe.” The independence movement escalated on January 23, 2013, when the Catalan parliament issued the Catalan Sovereignty Declaration, asserting that Catalonia is a sovereign state and the citizens of Catalonia will be able to choose their political future. In March this year, the Spanish Supreme Court annulled this declaration, and declared the referendum illegal. The Spanish Congress also rejected the Catalan request. However, the Catalan government still plans to proceed on the referendum, despite the Spanish government’s fervent, and futile, invocations of the constitution.
Europe has already seen the precedent for secession set by two significant movements: Kosovo in 2008 and Crimea in 2013. In 2008 Kosovo’s parliament declared Kosovo an independent state from Serbia, and last year, in the wake of the Ukrainian revolution and Russia’s entry into Eastern Ukraine, Crimea voted on a referendum for secession from Ukraine and joining the Russian Federation. Even though the constitutions of Serbia and Ukraine clearly states that such acts are not legal and legitimate, Kosovo is de facto independent and Crimea is effectively now part of Russia. These two cases share a very important commonality — they had a major support from powerful states in the international community. After NATO bombed Yugoslavia and disabled the Yugoslavian army in Kosovo, the war ended and Kosovo was placed under a UN governing body until 2008, while NATO and various Atlantic powers continued to lend support to Kosovo’s independence movement. When the parliament declared independence, the West applauded it as an act of self-determination. On the other hand, the referendum in Crimea was the product of a Russian intervention, and continues to enjoy strong support from Moscow.
What does this mean for Catalonia and Republika Srpska? Can a region secede and become independent without the consent of the central government or without a support of the international community, or at least a powerful benefactor? In the case of Scotland, the British government agreed that the outcome of the Scottish Referendum — even if in favor of independence — would be recognized as legal. The Spanish and the Bosnian governments, however, have unambiguously declared that secession of regions within the country is unconstitutional. On the whole, the international community is indifferent and leaves these issues to be solved domestically while offering platitudes on the significance of stable central governments and constitutional observance. There certainly is a double standard when it comes to the “right to be.” Many regions seek independence, but all are suppressed by international law and the domestic and global political system. Unless international powers have self-interest in the secession of a region, the independence movement is unlikely to succeed, so it would seem that for now, the referendum in Catalonia and the prospective one in Republika Srpska will mean nothing, regardless of their outcome.