The recent referendum in Crimea and the subsequent annexation of the peninsula by Russia has captured much of world’s attention, which has incidentally ignited discussions about secessionism in Europe.
On September 18, 2014, Scotland will vote on whether or not to become independent from the United Kingdom. Moreover, as Graham Avery notes in a recent article for the Scottish Global Forum think-tank, “Elsewhere in Europe, the Scottish debate is followed with interest, and the result of the referendum is awaited with concern.”
He also points out that Spain announced a similar referendum for November 9, 2014 where the government of Catalonia will vote in question of independence.
Additionally, barely a week after the Crimean referendum, Plebiscito.eu, an organization representing a coalition of Venetian nationalist groups, held an unofficial referendum on breaking with Italy.
The referendum's organizers announced the results: 2,102,969 votes in favor of independence — a whopping 89 percent of all ballots cast — to 257,266 votes against. Venetians also said yes to joining NATO, the EU, and the eurozone. The overwhelming victory surprised even ardent supporters of the initiative, as most polls before the referendum estimated only about 65 percent of the region's voters supported independence.
Before the vote, Lodovico Pizzati, the spokesman for the independence movement, told The Telegraph, “If there is a majority yes vote, we have scholars drawing up a declaration of independence and there are businesses in the region who say they will begin paying taxes to local authorities instead of to Rome… It won't be like in Scotland, where London has said it will recognize a vote in favor of independence. Rome has tried to ignore us, but we are not going to wait for their recognition.”
Hence, the vote in Venice was not official, legally binding nor does it have any constitutional power. But it is apparent that the majority of Venetians are ready to take drastic steps, many of them economic, towards separation from Italy.
Some have argued that Venice is justified in its move for independence. As noted by PolicyMic, Venice has both economic and historic reasons to separate: “Lately Venice has been paying 71 billion euros ($98 billion) to Rome in taxes. In turn, it has only been receiving 50 billion euros ($69 billion) back in investments and services.”
Furthermore, as Thomas Carswell argues, “The idea of an independent Venetian city state is not as daft as it might at first seem.” Venice was an independent city-state for around 1,000 years, and in that capacity flourished as a center of trade, commerce and learning.
Perhaps if it were granted more local autonomy, it would be able to regain some of its former greatness. At the moment, it appears that Venice feels overshadowed and suffocated by Rome.
As noted by Matt Ford, “Unlike Scotland and Catalonia, which already possess relatively strong regional governments, Italy's regions have limited legislative autonomy and little hope of obtaining more.”
This is not to say, however, that Venice has more reason to call for independence than Catalonia or Scotland. Each independence movement has its own unique set of circumstances, issues and concerns.
And, as Avery points out, “their debates on independence take place in different historical and constitutional contexts.”
Following the Crimean referendum, in which Crimea voted to separate from Ukraine and join the Russian Federation, Russian officials attempted to draw a parallel between that situation and the Scottish referendum.
Russia was trying to characterize the West as hypocritical for condemning the Crimean referendum and labeling it as illegal and illegitimate.
Valentina Matviyenko, the speaker of the Federation Council, Russia's upper house of parliament, stated, “The decision [by Crimea's parliament] is fully in line with international practice. It is enough to look at Scotland and you can find other examples… No one says the Scotland referendum is illegal."
The UK government did not take kindly to this characterization: "Nothing in the way the #Crimea referendum has been conducted should convince anyone that it is a legitimate exercise," the British foreign ministry tweeted.
The United Kingdom has a point. There wasn’t much of a choice for the people of Crimea in the recent referendum, as it occurred in the midst of a crisis, under rushed circumstances and the watchful eye of a foreign occupying force. A recent article from CNN notes:
"Russian lawmakers have drawn a parallel between Scotland's vote and the referendum held in Ukraine's Crimea region Sunday… But any such comparison is disingenuous: The referendum in Scotland is being held with the consent of the UK government, it will be internationally recognized, and Scotland's people have had years to consider what is a genuine choice... By contrast, the referendum held in Crimea was illegal under Ukrainian constitutional law and took place under duress, only days after armed ‘pro-Russian forces’ took effective control of the peninsula."
The situation in Crimea remains largely unresolved. Many in the international community do not recognize Russia’s annexation of the territory, and it is unclear what will ultimately occur there in terms of a Western response and what impact that may have.
Likewise, it is important to distinguish between the referendums in Scotland and Catalonia.
As Avery explains for Catalonia, “An important signifier of identity is their language (Catalan & Flemish), which is not the case for Scotland. In Spain many people – and most of the political parties in the Madrid parliament – consider independence, or a referendum on independence, would be contrary to the Spanish constitution. By contrast, in the United Kingdom most British people, and all the political parties in the Westminster parliament, accept the Scottish referendum as a valid way to proceed.”
For now, uncertainty seems to be the only quality that these the separate independence movements all share.
As polls fluctuate in Scotland towards a Yes vote, Scotland is uncertain whether or not it will be able keep the pound and join the EU, among other concerns. For Catalonia, it is uncertain whether or not the Spanish government will block its vote for independence.
For Venice things remain even more uncertain. On Venice, PolicyMic notes, “The majority of poll participants said they would like to remain part of EU, NATO and the Eurozone, but these organizations have indicated in the past that breakaway regions will have difficulty regaining membership… But more importantly, Italy also considers the referendum illegitimate and unconstitutional and is sure to block any further measures Venice might throw its way.”
Regardless, this is certainly something to watch, and all of these movements have shared implications in terms of EU and NATO membership, despite having very different fundamental concerns and origins.
Venice and Catalonia have particular reasons to look to the referendum in Scotland, as it is recognized by the UK government and the international community, and arguably has more legitimacy as such.
Thus, what ultimately occurs in Scotland will have a number of implications for future independence movements across Europe, and perhaps the world. With less than six months to go until Scotland votes, the rest of the world will be tracking the journey closely.
Photo credit: Vanessa Black