Separatist movements in each place vary in cause, history and degree of passion. None have yet actually succeeded in pulling away but not for wont of desire.
Yesterday, for instance, Kurds to break away from Iraq. Kurds, of course, have a more recent beef: Saddam Hussein ruthlessly put down separatist efforts, destroyed villages and farms and moved Arab settlers in to traditional Kurdish areas. Pre-election propaganda focused especially on survivors of a 198 poison gas attack on the town of Halabja as reason enough to divorce. Youth in Kurdistan, long cut off from Iraq and seeing no benefits from the nearby turmoil of ethnic strife, view their spiritual homes in places like London and Amsterdam, not Baghdad.
That they voted to leave in the face of hostile neighbors on all sides speaks to their determination. Turkey, which contains a large restive Kurd population threatens to cut off trade and especially close off the pipeline that takes oil and gas out for export. Iran, also with a Kurdish minority, closed its border with Kurdistan. And then there’s the Iraqi government itself, which as soon as the pro-secession forces declared victory, ordered Kurdistan to turn over its airports to Iraqi control or face a flight ban.
So good luck, Kurds.
The Catalans also harbor old grievances. They took the losing side in the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s, suffered brutally for it. For four decades, the fascist dictatorship of Francisco Franco suppressed their language and culture. They want to vote on secession this, but the Spanish government says such a move is unconstitutional, cracked down on nationalist activists, sent in the cops and said that no referendum will take place. It can’t be said that Catalonia has suffered during the 43 years of post-Franco democracy in Spain. The Catalans enjoy vast autonomy and is the country’s most prosperous region, but it appears its grudges (or is it just tribalism) die hard.
The Scots lost their secession referendum in 2014. They seem to be harboring resentments of bitter wars with England in the distant past. Maybe they dislike the fact that, in an 18th Century version of “God Save the Queen” (there are several versions), a stanza says that Scots ought to be crushed. Anyway, Scottish nationalist politicians keep trying to try, try again, especially since the Scots largely voted to remain in the European Union last year, but the rest of the UK combined enough votes to make Brexit a reality.
Even lethargic Italy, which for decades has been unable to get agreement even on a consistent electoral law that would end the habit of perpetual revolving door governments, is experiencing separatist yearnings. The Veneto region in the northeast wants to split off and sometimes the Lega Nord party, would like the Po River valley area which they call Padania, including Milan, to break from Italy. This has less to do with real or imagined repression by the central government than disgust with high taxation, waste and corruption popularly associated with “Roma ladrona.” That’s “Rome the thief.”
And then there’s California. A fanciful “Calexit” stems from hurt feelings over the election of Donald Trump as President. California had long prided itself as a kind of national bellwether of new trends. The rest of the states were expected to follow the leader. California gave Hillary a 4.5 million vote advantage over Donald Trump. But its big electoral college harvest got lost in the Trumpian strongholds among disgruntled Americans in Florida, the old industrial Midwest and Pennsylvania.
Its feelings hurt, California is suddenly a fan of states’ rights and trying to cut separate deals with a reliable friend, China, over trade and the environment. Maybe Beijing will protect California from Kim Jung Un. Others just want to leave the Union. Won’t happen, so the Golden State will have to be satisfied to join Hillary in some Chardonnay guzzling, which she apparently did lots of to recover from her loss, until the next election.
Kurds aside, there is something in common to all this. Globalization has stripped central governments across the globe of major decision-making powers, especially in the West. Why pay attention, and taxes, to Madrid and Rome if big decisions on things like budgets and immigration and small things like food preparation are made in Brussels, Frankfurt and many think, Berlin? Brexit itself was a reaction against the loss of decision-making in London. So in some ways are right-wing anti-EU movements in Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic.
Given this global trend, the Kurds probably can’t understand what’s the big deal about its own efforts to abandon Iraq. After all, plenty of other parts of the Middle East are reconfiguring, so why stick with old borders? Syria is a Humpty dumpty that will be hard to reconstruct. Palestine, excepting the Gaza Strip, seems destined to be swallowed by Israel. Back in the day, they were supposed to be separate states. Chaotic Libya hardly qualifies as a nation state and Yemen—is there still a Yemen?
Problem is, no one around the Kurd’s near neighborhood wants a Kurdistan. For that matter, the European Union wants no break-ups, either– in Spain or Italy or anywhere else. It wouldn’t have wanted a separate Scotland, at least until the UK decided to leave the EU. The last European country to break up peacefully was Czechoslovakia, which split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia by mutual agreement in 1993. That was a more than a decade before either joined the EU.
For reasons of habit, or unwillingness to give up territory by some, or for fear of a domino effect among ethnic minorities, self-determination seems a dead concept. It’s a word that dates from World War I when colonial subjects were promised freedom from imperial rule but has become as obsolete as many of the weapons from that era.
Just ask Taiwan.