Independence movements and Realpolitik

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The current independence projects don’t seem to be going too well: The Kurds are losing huge areas to the Iraqi forces (apparently supported by the Iranians, who really don’t want their Kurds to get an appetite for independence); the Catalans are likely to resume their independence declaration within the next couple of days, at which point the Spanish Government have said they’ll suspend devolution (and no doubt send in the Guardia Civil to enact this decree); and in Scotland a lot of independence supporters seem to have no idea how to campaign for independence without formal agreement from Westminster.

What seems to be common to the three groups is that people have been too idealistic. It’s like the Kurds expected international support for independence because they had done such a good job fighting ISIS; the Catalans thought the EU would stand up for them because they’re EU citizens; and in Scotland we thought Westminster would always do what we asked them (rather than realising that Cameron only agreed because he was cocky enough to think he’d win big time no matter what).

It’s perhaps time to adopt a more realpolitisch approach to independence. Ideals and principles are good, but in politics you should always ask yourself what’s in it for your opponent. So what benefit would a country get from supporting the Kurds? What would an EU country gain from supporting Catalonia and annoying Spain? Why exactly would Theresa May feel strengthened if she supported a new independence referendum?

(I can recommend playing the board game Diplomacy to learn these skills, by the way. Reading Machiavelli and Sun Tzu is also good, but Diplomacy is more fun.)

In particular, it seems like lots of independence supporters in Scotland (and, I think, in Catalonia) had built up completely unrealistic ideas about the EU. Here is a more realpolitisch view:

The EU is rule-based.
This means that the EU was quite relaxed about Scottish independence when it looked like it would happen with the explicit approval of the UK, but they really don’t like the idea of a UDI.
The EU is a club of member states.
This means that they try to keep current members (such as Spain) happy, but they care less about prospective members (such as Catalonia). It also explains why the UK is already getting ignored in many cases in spite of Brexit not having happened yet, because of course leaving members carry less weight than those who’re committed to the club.
The EU is consensus-based.
Because it’s a club, it likes to operate by consensus. The EU will generally bide its time until the member states have found a compromise everybody can live with.
The EU operates slowly.
Doing things by consensus takes time. Because of this, the EU often reacts very slowly when things happen. There’s thus no way they would try to suspend Spain immediately, almost no matter how badly they treated Catalonia. They would do a lot of talking behind the scenes, and sanctions would only get imposed after a long delay, and probably only as a last resort. Don’t forget how long it’s taken the EU to do anything about the democratic problems in Hungary and Poland.
The EU is most effective behind the scenes.
The EU likes to operate quietly without generating big headlines. For instance, Christian Allard pointed out on Twitter that on the day of the Catalan referendum, the Guardia Civil for some strange reason didn’t return in the evening when the votes were getting counted, although everybody expected them. It’s a good guess the EU put a lot of pressure on Rajoy to stop the violence.
The EU has never been keen on independence movements.
Several of the founding members of the EU had “problems” with independence movements, so we shouldn’t be surprised that they designed the rules in a way that wouldn’t encourage them.
The EU is not the Council of Europe, and the European Court of Justice is not the European Court of Human Rights.
Whereas the CoE’s ECHR produces human rights rulings all the time,
it’s not really the typical kind of topic of the EU’s ECJ, even though human rights are now part of the EU treaties, so we shouldn’t expect them to clamp down on Spain on this basis quickly.
The EU only fights for EU citizens outwith their own country.
If the UK discriminates against a Danish citizen like me, the EU will step in immediately – but they won’t lift a finger if it happens to UK citizens.
Because of this, it’s easier for people from the rest of the EU to bring a foreign spouse to the UK than it is for UK citizens. This is also the reason why Scotland is allowed to charge tuition fees for English students at Scottish universities, but not for Danish or Polish ones. It’s therefore not very effective at all for Catalans to shout that they’re EU citizens being treated badly – so long as they’re Spanish citizens getting treated badly in Spain, the EU won’t interfere.
The EU does Realpolitik.
So they weren’t keen on Scottish independence when the UK looked like they were going to remain, but when the UK voted Leave, the EU could suddenly see the point in supporting us (because it would have weakened the UK during the negotiations). And now that Scotland wants to wait till after the dust has settled, the EU has become less supportive again.
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I don’t understand the people who dislike the EU but love EFTA, by the way. For all practical purposes, these days EFTA is an outer circle of the EU – it’s EU membership without the influence. If you’re a member of EFTA, you’ll end up following most EU rules, but you won’t have had a seat at the table when those rules are created.

Norway is only an EFTA member because the country voted No to EEC/EU membership twice, and EFTA/EEA was the best the politicians could achieve without breaking the terms of the referendums. It’s certainly not because the Norwegian politicians thought it would be better than full EU membership.

If a country is a member of the EU, they can try to change the bits they don’t like. They can for instance try to change the EU’s position of Catalan independence. A country that is a member of EFTA will not be able to change the EU’s view on anything, but will still have to live with the consequences.

EFTA membership might be a necessary evil for some countries, but it’s certainly not anything to strive for as a permanent solution in my book.

To return to Realpolitik, one country that has definitely understood it is Russia. They’re being extremely cynical about manipulating democratic processes in the West, especially through social media. Interestingly, they don’t really seem to be working for specific democratic outcomes, but rather building up existing conflicts. So they didn’t invent Brexit or the American Far Right, but they strengthened them, thinking that a weakened EU (in the case of Brexit) or an angry USA (in the case of Trump) will play into Russia’s hands.

For the same reason, there are signs the Russians are supporting Catalonia – not because they actually care about the Catalan people, but because they think they can use it to weaken the EU. (Just for the record, I am in favour of the right to self-determination for the Catalan people, but if that means independence, I want it to happen without wrecking the EU in the process.)

As I’ve said often before, I don’t think Scottish independence makes much sense if we revert to a world dominated by great powers (like Europe in the 19th century). Organisations such as the EU and NATO make it possible to be a successful small country, so we should take care not to destroy them.

From the perspective of Realpolitik, Scotland (and Catalonia) should work hard to change the EU from the inside to make it more open to internal independence movements. What we should not do is to help Russia bring down the EU, even if it makes independence slightly easier to achieve in the short term.

After all, the independent Scotland most of us want to see is an open and prosperous country, and that is much more likely inside a strong European Union.

One thought on “Independence movements and Realpolitik

  • 21/10/2017 at 11:34
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    Good article, although I think if the EU had been more openly supportive of scotref in the wake of brexit, we might not have such a pro EFTA stream emerging. But as you suggest, that’s typical of the eu mechanics.
    Also, presumably EFTA members are happy with their status since most of them have actually rejected full eu membership previously.
    For me the lesson of this and previous historical events is that Scots can only trust themselves, no foreign institution will assist. Fair enough, if we don’t have the balls for it, we don’t deserve the prize.

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