A secessionist movement can opt for one of two approaches to achieve independence. The first approach is to challenge the central government. If the government authorises independence, as Serbia did with Montenegro in 2006, then the path towards state sovereignty is almost guaranteed. The second approach involves calling the international community into play, as was the case with both South Sudan and Kosovo. The latter self-proclaimed their own independence from Serbia in 2008, and almost all other countries recognised the newly formed state except Russia, which had backed Serbia during the war. In the international system, politics – that
is, backing of sponsor states – tends to prevail over rights.

Today, both politically and legally, selfdetermination is unanimously acknowledged in the presence of certain specific situations: people subjected to colonial domination, populations whose territories have been occupied through the use of force by a foreign state, or minorities living within a sovereign state where they are persecuted and are asking to be kept apart for their own survival. If these requirements are missing, self-determination has no legal or political grounds, and what prevails is the protection of the state’s territorial integrity.

Additionally, where the two higher levels (the nation state and EU) are both democratic, independence movements, than representing a democratic appeal, end up representing feudal interests, specific to a very retrograde culture that is unlikely to prosper from an economic point of view. The Catalans, for example, claim that they would be richer on their own, meaning separated from the rest of Spain. As the then president of the European Commission, Romano Prodi, explained in 2004, secession also means exclusion from the EU. And the cost, even for a rich region like Catalonia (19% of Spanish GDP), can be very steep: the Spanish finance minister has estimated that succession would reduce Catalan GDP by between 25 and 30% of its current value. Leaving the EU would also mean a loss of access to the single market as well as public debt remaining in euros and Catalans would no longer have access to liquidity provided by the ECB.

But while the Catalan has splashed the headlines recently, it is not a Spanish exception. Gusts of sovereign and secessionist causes and the multiplication of regional or Eurosceptic parties are blowing hard from Scotland to the Basque Country, from Flanders to the Veneto in Italy. Europe is a mixture of cultures and traditions, and if all the linguistic or cultural sub-identities decided to disintegrate their state entities, we would be left with around 80 microstates. The United Kingdom alone would have 13. But if even our nation states are unable to come up with solutions to global problems on their own, the micro-states would have an even harder time. When independence movements are propped up by nostalgia for a feudal and localist past, one risks regressing on economic, cultural and democratic fronts.