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Secession, Imaginary and Real

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Since the reelection of President Obama, there’s been a surge of interest in secession. A petition on the White House webpage requesting that Washington allow Texas to secede has attracted over 100,000 signatures. The WashingtonExaminernotes that similar petitions have been established for Alaska, Rhode Island, New York, Maryland, Florida, Tennessee and Georgia, although these have attracted fewer signatures.

The petitions have no legal force and are semi-anonymous. Nevertheless, Erick Erickson of RedState thought it worth the effort to read them out of the conservative movement. Texas governor Rick Perry apparently concurs.

These developments are little more than linkbait for liberal bloggers. No state is going to secede. And I doubt that many of the petitioners are serious about wanting to do so.

In Spain, by contrast, a real debate about secession is now in progress. An informative post by Joshua Tucker on The Monkey Cage observes that public opinion in Catalonia has grown increasingly favorable to secession in recent years, culminating in a  pro-secession demonstration by over 1.5 million people this past September 11 (Catalonia’s national holiday). It’s not clear that all the participants really want to secede: many may favor a deal that would afford Catalonia more political and economic sovereignty. But the failure of negotiations for a so-called “fiscal pact” has encouraged nationalist sentiments.

On November 25, the Autonomous Community of Catalonia will hold elections. If the nationalist Convergencia i Unió party gains a majority in the the regional parliament or is able to form a coalition with other nationalist parties, the Catalan Prime Minister Artur Mas is likely to call a referendum on secession from Spain. The threat of a referendum could be a bluff to extract concessions from the national government. But it may also be a step toward the Balkanization of weak states in the heart of Europe, particularly Spain and Belgium.

This possibility has attracted less attention in the American press than the issue of Scottish independence. But it is potentially more significant. The rest of the United Kingdom can get on perfectly well without Scotland. But Spain cannot afford to lose Catalonia, and Wallonia cannot prosper without Flanders.

The danger here, in other words, is not that secession would lead to the creation of unviable states: the Catalans and Flemish would probably be better off in their own countries. It’s that it would leave behind economic basketcases. The European Union has proved unable to handle one Greece. What would it do with a couple more?

In a previous post, Daniel Larison wondered why Americans should care about non-violent separatism in Western Europe. The scenario I’ve just outlined, in which Europe remains economically and politically paralyzed, is one answer. As a critic of the EU and defender of traditional nation-states, it’s fun to contemplate the discomfiture of the Brussels elite. But our own economy will not fully recover as long as Europe remains in crisis.

Secession, then, is not the moral horror that some commentators imagine. There is nothing sacred about specific borders, particularly when they enclose several linguistically, religiously, and culturally distinct groups.

But secession tends to create as many problems as it resolves. It is a last resort that is wise only when these groups cannot live together in peace. That doesn’t seem to be the case in Spain. And it’s obviously not in these United States.

about the author

Samuel Goldman is an assistant professor of political science and director of the Loeb Institute for Religious Freedom at George Washington University. He earned a Ph.D. in political science from Harvard, where he has also taught writing. In addition to The American Conservative, Goldman’s work has appeared in The New Criterion, The Wall Street Journal, and Maximumrocknroll. Follow him on Twitter.

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