As Kurds in Iraq voted on independence last week, and Catalans in northern Spain attempted to do so this Sunday, it seems like a new wave of independence movements is underway. They are not alone: Scotland comes to mind, as does Greenland (at times), and of course Tibet, South Sudan, Kosovo, and others.
These situations can easily escalate into violence. Ironically, more violence has been reported from Spain than from Iraq.
Reactions from around the world follow the traditional lines: those with nothing at stake support the movements or stay silent. Those who condemn are typically countries who fear similar movements within their own territories.
For the supporters, the right of people to choose their own government weighs heavily.
The US Declaration of Independence states that “it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish [a destructive government], and to institute new Government”. And for most free countries, this rings true as the decent thing to do.
But it’s not that simple. The American Civil War was fought because the Confederates were not allowed to secede from the Union. Yes, slavery was the issue of moral high ground, but also at stake was the integrity of the nation. A United States of America would be a strong world power – two Americas would not.
Even for democratic states, it’s about money and power.
Catalonia is one of the richest regions of Spain. It would add even further strain on its struggling economy were the powerhouse of Barcelona to leave.
Similarly, independence for Padania (Northern Italy) would be fatal to the Italian economy.
China needs Tibet, not for economic reasons, but as a territorial buffer to India.
Turkey fears having to give up large parts of its territory to a united Kurdistan, and thus opposes the movement among Iraqi Kurds.
On the other hand, Greenland for instance survives on large subsidies from Denmark, which they would lose with independence. Consequently, any thought of them becoming independent is no real cause for worry in Denmark (even with potential mineral riches).
Scotland is somewhere in between. They have oil, but London remains the economic centre. And yes, dissolving the union would be a blow to any Imperial memories the English might have. But with Brexit, they have chosen their own path of solitude, so they are (self-)occupied for the time being.
So where does that leave Catalonia and Kurdistan? The people in power need to balance morality with prosperity. People’s rights and all that is fine if you have nothing to lose. Will they accept a poorer Madrid and a less powerful nation, or keep on fighting against the will of the people? Only time will tell.