Friday, November 2, 2007

Secession: beyond economics

/ is breaking up so hard to do? /
I was following, a month ago, the whole brouhaha surrounding the Belgian government crisis. Possibly the best summary of what was and is at stake in Belgium was written by Ingrid Robeyns, at Crooked Timber, a post that offers coprehensively both background and analysis of the current crisis' main events. Today, as the issue of Belgium's political impasse moved past record-breaking territory, into a major crisis, previous claims that the country quite probably is not heading towards a break-up, although quite possibly accurate, might seem less than 100% convincing. Everybody seems to agree that the financial imbalance between Flanders and Wallonia, which led to the Flemish having to subsidize the Walloons through their taxes, is a factor in the Belgian equation. It quite probably is, but the interesting thing here is that in the event of secession, both countries will remain partners within the EU, with some sort of transfers certainly flowing again from the State of Flanders to the State of (Rump) Belgium, through the Union's many funds and subsidies!

The question of independence and secession from a country, within the EU, is a novel twist to the "subnational" issue, that enhances the viability of the secessionist project and the vision of secession advocates, in many parts of Europe. To name but a few cases, this prospect has been part of the rhetoric of the Catalans, the Basques, the Scots, the Welsh, the "Padanians" and of course the Flemish. The EU offers a "safe haven" of sorts to various independence movements, a guarantee that "much will remain the same" even in the event of secession, especially regarding the economic viability of such a project. Thus, economic motives for secession can be reasonably seen as enhanced by the prospect of EU participation. Indeed, given the current ideological climate and raw economism, the concept of nation-building as an exercise in revenue maximizing state-branding, isn't beyond contemplation at all.

Economic motives for secession, or market-driven "ethnogenesis", seem very "contemporary". But is economics the driving factor (instead of a driving factor) in secessionist movements? Can states be built on economic considerations alone? Does the Flemish secession movement exist principally because of taxation issues?

I think not.

First of all it is far from obvious that the EU itself is comfortable with the idea of internally multiplying its member states. As the Economist has pointed out:

The EU is also unlikely to support moves leading to any disintegration of member states. Regional movements often point to the EU as a trans-national safeguard, allowing them more easily to dispense with their nation-state affiliation. But the EU may be more concerned about any process that upsets its own delicate institutional balance, to say nothing of making it harder to gain a consensus for a new EU constitution. Having put the brakes on further external enlargement, the EU will not welcome a form of internally-generated expansion.

In fact Prodi had warned explicitly (Scotland in that instance), as President of the EC that EU membership is not a given for any wannabe breakaway republics:

Three years ago... Romano Prodi, the President of the European Commission, warned that if Scotland... breaks away from the United Kingdom, Edinburgh would have to reapply for membership of the European Union (EU). "A newly-independent region would, by the fact of its independence, become a third country with respect to the (European) Union and the treaties would not apply any more in its territory," Mr. Prodi said.

One might also add that the regionalisation of Europe (as intent for the time being and not as actual pervasive policy) and the role that regions seem to be playing in EU development strategy, can act as a counterweight to separatism, as they deliver plenty of self-government to local entities, circumventing (up to a point) the hold of the national government. The prospect of a purely regional Europe however is a non-starter, among other reasons because of scaling problems. I quote from a highly relevant interview with Nicolas Levrat, the director of the Institute of European Studies at the University of Geneva, questioned by eurotopics:

Q: Could you imagine a European Union made up of regions and not of nation states?

NL: A Europe of the Regions wouldn't work. We see that the Committee of the Regions is quite inefficient. We are talking about 200 or 300 entities trying to make decisions. Imagine the procedures necessary to reach a qualifying majority in a decision making body with 300 members! It's not like your average parliament, it would be much more difficult as is already the case in the present European council with 27 members.

Then there is the issue that, apart from problematic parts of the world such as Africa and the (Western) Balkans, there is little that suggests that independence or autonomy movements are directly tied to solely economic considerations - see for example the paper by Elliot D. Green On the Endogeneity of Ethnic Secessionist Groups, which presents the theoretical context of the debate and evidence that shows that the relation between economic opportunity and secessionist power is not linear at all.

Ethnogenesis is a complex process and certainly not one that can be reduced to a purely economic cost-benefit analysis. If this is the case for well established secessionist movements, it is even more so for ad hoc potential entities constructed on economic considerations alone. In fact the only case of a country built on principally economic considerations in Europe that I can think of is Montenegro. Whether that was a wise move, is another discussion, as it isn't at all that obvious that Montenegro is more independent now (under any meaningful definition of the term "independent") than it was when it was federated with Serbia. Anyway, the post-Yugoslav Balkans, home of the smuggler-state, doesn't lend itself towider generalizations.

Note also that were regional economic inequalities a driving force for "nation building" alone (either through the logic of "liberation" from paying for the "backwards" regions, or through the aspiration of a better economic future for disadvantaged regions), the phenomenon would be vastly more widespread than it is now. The economic gaps that exist in almost countries between certain regions are often quite larger than the corresponding gaps between secessionist regions and other regions within the same country, yet not all regional income gaps lead to demands for autonomy or secession. Thus Nicholas Levrat's assertion (in the abovementioned interview) that "Contrary to what is commonly said - that the rise of regionalism is linked to the funding structure and federal EU policy - the facts suggest that it is not the regions that are heavily subsidized by the EU that are pushing for independence but rather the rich regions", is a generalization that is not even statistically valid: Not all, not even most, but just a handful of "rich regions" are pushing for independence. The ones that do are riding on and succeed because of a preexisting national identity.

Thus, the sort of mechanistic reductionism that sees national or regional aspirations of independence as a result of solely, or even principally, economic forces and motives, isn't convincing. The EU separatist movements in fact are, if anything less prevalent today than they were in the past, because political issues such as minority rights, language issues and local government are guaranteed inside the EU. There is a political primacy here that cannot be generated at whim, and is dependent on factors such as local history and past grievances. Countries are not corporations. They presuppose (and impose) a vastly deeper loyalty than any brand-name ever could. History cannot be fast forwarded nor reduced simply to the pursuit of profit.