In order to understand the issues involved when political parties seek independence it is necessary to look at the topic in terms of its fundamentals. This involves looking at two processes. One is the process by which countries or parts of countries integrate. The other is the way in which they sometimes disintegrate. There are in history examples of unification and examples of secession. These two processes both describe something fundamental in human nature. Only by exploring them will it be possible to understand the essence of the political issue.
Why do we have nation states at all?
It is important to explore the historical issue of how people living in small villages in antiquity gathered together. We moved from tribes, to areas ruled by warlords or chiefs, then to kings. Every European country is made up of places that once were independent. This process of integration is generally called progress.
Looking at a map of Britain at the time of the Romans we find that there were many peoples inhabiting this small island.
Even the names of these peoples have for the most part been forgotten. Whatever once divided them has ceased. The reason for the division was, no doubt due to problems with communication. Travelling from the south of England to the north in those days was, no doubt a major journey. For this reason rulers were localised.
Scotland too was just as much a divided territory in Ancient times. There too were numerous tribes with names that have now been forgotten. Later at least four peoples could be found in Scotland and the British Isles. This happened because of migration and also because of the processes of division and integration. Tribes fought and made peace. Territory was won and lost. The whole was in flux.
The history of the British Isles is the process by which Celtic speaking people, became English speaking people. It was above all language that united these many peoples, but it was also the process by which modern nation states came into existence. Gradually different people found that they had something in common or through conquest and assimilation were made to have something in common. Small weak local rulers were subsumed by larger stronger ones. This began in Roman times, but continued when the Romans left.
If we move forward a few hundred years we can see that the process of integration has continued. The Celts have been pushed westwards. Germanic/Scandinavian peoples have continued to spread from the East and to the North. There are still quite a large number of kingdoms in Britain, but there are many fewer than when the Romans first arrived.
Britain is still not united, nor for that matter are England, Scotland, Wales or Ireland. The idea that there was such a thing as an English or a Scottish people in antiquity is refuted by history. There were many different peoples in the various parts of the British Isles, but they had not reached any sort of unity. They were however moving towards unification.
At this point in British history there are still a number of different languages spoken in Britain. People in the north and west tend to speak Celtic languages in the south and east Anglo-Saxon/Scandinavian languages. If this division had continued then so might the division of Britain. But it didn’t. Gradually and with the help of further invasions from the Normans, modern English arose. Within another few hundred years, by 1707, Britain was united into a country that for the most part spoke English.
This process of integration could be illustrated in nearly every European country. Examples can be found in other countries around the world as well. As people develop they tend to come together. We can see the same sort of thing happen today with the rise of multi-national companies and globalisation. There are economies of scale when people come together to form a nation state. There are advantages to being ruled on a national level rather than allowing every small village to have its own chief. Unity allows people to achieve more than when they are separate, both in terms of security and in terms of economics. The story of human development is to a great extent the story of its unification. This is what we mean by progress.
Is there a limit to this progress?
Why should we stop integrating? Why not end up with a world government, like the Federation in science fiction’s Star Trek? If unification is so beneficial why do we stop? Why don’t the world’s present nation states continue the process of joining together that begun in antiquity?
If the EU could succeed in creating a Federal United States of Europe, could this be a model for other continents. Given that Europe is an arbitrary continent why not make it the Eurasian Union? Why not go still further and treat all human beings as citizens of one nation state?
Two models of nationalism
Nationalism can go in two directions. Patriotism, by the way, is not nationalism unless it becomes extremism. Nationalism can be unifying, for example German unification in 1860s and 1870s and Italian nationalism during Risorgimento. Here nationalism describes the process of integrating German and Italian speaking peoples into a nation state. Many independent statelets become one.
The other sort of nationalism is by means of secession: A part of a nation state votes or fights to leave. Poland leaves the Russian Empire. The Austro-Hungarian Empire falls apart, Ukraine leaves USSR. Slovenia leaves Yugoslavia.
There are two factors at play in world politics. One separates the other unifies. These two factors are always present. While there is a tendency towards unification that is connected with human progress, there is also the tendency towards division. These processes are present even today. At almost the same time as West and East Germany united, Czechoslovakia divided. Just as unification is grounded in human nature, so too is secession. In order to look at these processes in more detail it is necessary to explore the reasons why people unite or divide.
The process of unification
Small territories are conquered by larger ones. But this usually occurs only when they already have similarities. For example, the gradual unification of Russia from small territories ruled by warring princes occurred in the context of fighting a common enemy, the Mongols. Only by gradually uniting could they stand up to common enemy. As a consequence of this unification Russia could then move towards expansion, by which it brought other peoples into the ever increasing Russian empire. Without the initial unification Russian power would never have developed in the first place.
However a united country normally has certain key factors. The population is already similar or else it becomes similar.
Typically a country is united because its people speak the same language, have a similar history, culture, ethnicity and religion. They are normally geographically distinct from other countries.
The process of unifying a country frequently irons out difference. In France in the middle ages there were many variants of French. Now there is only French. The process of unification created this common language and common identity.
The process of division
Secession happens most frequently when a nation state includes people who are in some important respect different from their neighbours or where there is a political disagreement that cannot be overcome otherwise than through secession, or where there is a significant geographical divide such as an ocean.
The fundamental reason why the USA split from Britain was geography. The disputes between the American colonists and Britain could have been overcome, but the Atlantic Ocean could not. The difference between an American and a British person even today is quite small. We understand each other quite easily. Culturally we are very similar. But people prefer to be ruled by someone who lives on the same continent as they do. For this reason also Australia and New Zealand although linguistically and culturally almost identical to Britain do not wish to be ruled by someone who lives on the other side of the world.
Identity is crucial to the issue of secession. If people in a nation state feel different in a crucial respect to others living there, then a desire to live in a separate country may arise. For example, the now independent countries of the former USSR now have an identity that is different from that of Russia. Many of them speak a different language, e.g. Armenian, Kazakh.
Many former Soviet citizens living in the non-Russian republics, no doubt, had a Soviet identity, but this was not enough to prevent the break-up of the Soviet Union. At what point is a common identity not enough to overcome the feeling of difference? Here we see the two processes of integration and disintegration working. There is something in human nature that brings us together, a common identity, but there is also something that splits us apart, a separate identity. The limit of a common identity may turn out to be the limit of unification.
Political disagreement may give rise to secession even when identity is very similar. For example, the southern states (the Confederacy) seceded from the USA because of a potential political disagreement over slavery. In nearly every other respect an American from the south was not very different from someone from the north. Even today there have been instances where some Texans talked about secession because of the election of Obama, while some Californians talked about it due to the election of Trump. In any nation state a part will frequently vote differently from the whole. This is not a fault of democracy, it is a feature. But if a part of a nation state cares deeply enough about a political issue and if they feel that the state as a whole prevents the fulfilment of this political goal, then there may be a tendency toward secession even while identity issues are not really a factor.
If there is a tendency for countries to secede because they speak different languages or have different cultures and religions, how can the process of unification progress? The issue here gets to the heart of why we have countries and how far disparate peoples can be united. There are, of course, examples of countries which have many different languages, ethnic groups, religions and identities. China, Russia and India contain many different peoples. But what do they share? Are they held together by a common identity? Do most citizens speak a common language as well as their own language? Are such states held together by choice or because they are never allowed a choice. Most nation states in the world do not give parts the right to decide whether they which to leave. The United States would fight to maintain Texas in the Union. Germany would not allow Bavaria a vote on secession, nor would France allow Corsica such a choice. But sometimes as we have seen in recent years nation states like the USSR reach a point where they collapse. What lessons can be drawn from this?
The USSR for all its faults had a common language (Russian) which everyone spoke at least in the workplace. It had a common ideology (communism), similar schooling and a common identity. If the USSR could not succeed even though much of it had centuries of shared history in the Russian Empire, then what hope is there for the EU or other attempts at multi-national unions? Given the choice the peoples of the Soviet Republics voted with their feet. At the point when the USSR was at its weakest it found that what it held in common was not enough. This demonstrated that all along the bonds of the USSR were not the bonds of choice, but rather lack of choice. They were “forced to be free”.
But is it possible then for different peoples to join together to form a new nation state? Yes it is. We have numerous examples of different people in history gradually joining. But what is the lesson from this process for future attempts to join different peoples? If the Soviet Union failed what lessons can be learned for the European Union?
The condition for the possibility of a successful union
What does the EU need to succeed? It needs its people to have a shared identity. East and West Germans were able to come together and unite because they thought of themselves as one people. West Germans were willing to transfer billions of Deutsche Marks to East Germany. But they are not willing to transfer money to Greeks. Why? They don’t think that they are the same people as Greeks. Greeks and Germans are both Europeans, but this common identity is not enough for them to think of themselves as countrymen. They do not feel as if they share a common identity. Without that common identity it is hard to see how the European Union can become a nation state. This after all is the goal. It is the reason that the EU introduced a single currency and border free travel. It is the reason why the rule of Brussels supersedes national rule. But how then can EU political union ever be successful without a common identity?
How is it possible to create a common EU identity? There needs to be a common language and common education. There would have to be a common language like in the USSR (Russian) that is spoken in every EU workplace. The obvious candidate is English. This massively help free movement of people for everyone. In this case, if I trained to be an accountant I could work just as easily in Germany as in Greece. At present I can’t do this as for linguistic reasons. The United States works as a union because I can live and work in any state without much difficulty. The same was true in the USSR. The reason for this above all else was a common language. Without a common language the attempt to create a state from different countries will lead either to force or failure.
But even here there is no guarantee. Unification didn’t work in the USSR. There are numerous secession movements in Europe often even when the people involved are very similar, speak more or less the same language and have been part of the same nation state for centuries.
The problem is that as soon as one secession movement succeeds it tends to encourage others. In a very short time Yugoslavia went from being one country to being seven or perhaps eight depending on how you count. If every European secession movement succeeded the number of European countries would more than treble. There are over 185 different ethnic groups in Russia and 22 different Republics. If each of them demanded secession, there would be chaos and war. The same can be said for many other countries. Imagine if India or China attempted to split up along ethnic or linguistic lines. The problem is that all of these people are mixed. There are no clear boundaries dividing one group from another. Anyway if the world’s nations started splitting up where would this stop? It would be a retrograde step taking us eventually back to the warring tribes of the Roman Empire.
Could the USA face fresh secession problems not only over political difference, but also because of the changing ethnic and linguistic makeup of its population? The middle states and coastal states are very different. What would happen if Hispanics became a majority in some western states? Could they ask for reunification with Mexico?
Czechs and Slovaks are so similar that only they can tell that they are in any way different. If even people who are this similar cannot bear to live in the same nation state, how can we expect a nation state called the EU to succeed?
If a successful country like the UK is in danger of falling apart even though the only difference between Scotland and England is an accent, how can we expect Spaniards and Poles to live in the same nation state?
The right of secession versus the nation state’s right to territorial integrity
Under what circumstances is secession justified? There is a difference of opinion about this in various parts of the world. China under no circumstances will allow secession. If Taiwan declared independence there might well be war. Tibet has no choice but to remain a part of China.
Likewise in the USA they moved from the Constitution saying that anyone can throw off a Government they don’t like to the Gettysburg Address, which is about how a democracy can long endure in the face of attempts to break it up. Secession is seen as a threat to democracy by Lincoln. The Gettysburg Address together with the United States Constitution form the foundations of modern western democracy. But they are going in different directions and appear to contradict each other.
Is it anti-democratic to prevent a part of a country seceding if it wishes to? After all, the majority of voters in the southern states did want secession. There is no question of this. The results of the 1860 Presidential Election show it. By what right were they prevented by force of arms?
The USSR allowed the Republics to secede. But Russia did not allow Chechnya to leave. Was this just because of the chaos in 1991? If given the chance again would Putin, or someone similar, try to prevent the collapse of the Soviet Union by force? If he had no-one could complain that Crimea had changed its Republic or that the Donbass had moved from the Ukrainian SSSR to the Russian SSSR. These would have been internal Soviet matters.
If Ukraine has the right to leave the USSR, why doesn’t Crimea have the right to leave Ukraine?
There is a tension between the right of Ukraine to keep its territory intact and the right of Crimea to leave. These rights are balanced rather like the balance between the US Constitution and the Gettysburg Address. There is a contradiction at the heart of the foundation documents of western democracy. A tension between the American right to independence from Britain, but the lack of the Confederacy’s right to leave the USA. Is it simply a matter of might is right? How are we to balance the rights of unity and the rights of secession? Both involve self-determination of the whole people versus a part of the people.
Most examples of secession take place after political collapse or war
The Russian Revolution led to Finnish, Polish and Baltic States’ independence. The fall of the USSR led to independence for the Soviet Republics. But it went further. Transnistria seceded from Moldova. Nagorno-Karabak seceded from Azerbaijan and over time there were further conflicts. Abkhazia and South Ossetia seceded from Georgia. These secessions are not recognised by most of the world. But what makes one secession justified while another is not? How do we decide which to recognise and which to ignore?
In general it is unusual for secession to happen peacefully with neither political collapse nor war. Few countries in the world would allow a part to democratically vote to leave the whole. Exceptions to this include the UK and Canada. Spain is reluctant to allow Catalonia a vote on secession. But why is it fine for Scotland and Quebec to have a vote but not Catalonia? Why if it is all right for Scotland to have a vote should the USA be justified in preventing secession by force? Would the USA still use force if Texas tried to leave?
Given that there is a right to secession how on earth can the EU have any long term future? The EU is not at present a nation state, for which reason leaving it is not strictly speaking secession. But could it reach a stage where the EU became a nation state that forbade members from leaving, just as Spain forbids Catalonia. Unless the EU forbade members leaving it is hard to see how it can have a long term future.
But what would such a refusal look like? What if Poland became so thoroughly sick of EU membership that it decided to leave? What if it had a revolt against EU membership which was then crushed by EU troops? This would look awfully like the revolts of 1830 or 1863 against the Tsar.
So long as people have a Polish, or a German or a Greek identity and so long as they don’t share the identity of their fellow EU citizens, for so long the EU project is in danger. Unifying only works when there is a common identity such as was the case with Italian and German unification. But there is no strong European identity. The difference between someone from Portugal and Hungary is just too great for them to share an identity. They don’t even both speak Indo-European languages. They probably know next to nothing about the history or culture of each other’s countries. There is nothing to unify because there is nothing in common.
At some point a political crisis is liable to envelop the EU. If the UK can successfully leave the EU without disaster, it will make it much easier for someone else. At some point a politician will be elected somewhere who realises that leaving the Eurozone and devaluing is a better alternative to years of recession and austerity. Once one goes, another will soon follow.
The EU is trying to unify that which is dissimilar without trying in any way to make it similar. Secession is a threat to any nation state even when the people living in it are similar (see UK, Czechoslovakia). It is hard to see how the EU can avoid eventual secession and following in the footsteps of the USSR for the simple reason that it lacks even those advantages that the USSR had.
People are by nature tribal. We prefer to live with people who are similar to us. This is something that goes back to the time when we first emerged from caves and began tilling the land. It is the desire to live with people who are similar that explains why we have countries where people are broadly from the same tribe. They speak the same language, worship the same God, have the same culture and tastes. This is a deep rooted part of human nature. If it were not, we would not have developed countries at all.
But given that human beings on the whole wish to live in countries where people are similar to us, the idea of a world government falls by the wayside as does the idea of a Federal United States of Europe. It will be contrary to the basic desire of people to live in a nation state with people who are similar to them. In the end Poles mostly prefer to live with Poles, Germans prefer to live with Germans. Until they have the same identity there is no point trying to make them live in the same country.
History shows Germans and Poles living together for centuries without a common identity emerging. The end of that project happened between 1939 and 1945. If hundreds of years of sharing a territory ended in the expulsion of the Germans from Polish lands, it is hard to see how these people can ever form a common identity owing to the EU.
The modern experiment of trying to change human nature by making us live in a nation state called the EU, as also making us live with mass migration from other countries and cultures, is going to fail. The USSR tried to change human nature and spent 70 failing to do so. Human nature is deep rooted and goes back 40,000 years. We prefer to live with our own kind and until you make Poles the same as Greeks each of them speaking the same common language and eating much the same food, you will find that they do not think of themselves as compatriots. For this reason they cannot very well live as part of the same country. If people cannot live together it is better that they live separately.
This post was originally published by the author on her personal blog: https://www.effiedeans.com/2018/08/integration-versus-disintegration-in.html