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State secession in Europe

Updated: Apr 16, 2019

Author: Olivier Vonk

While tensions have slightly settled down, the topic of state secession in Europe has featured prominently in recent years. With Scotland and Catalonia attracting most of the attention, the list of pro-independence movements in Europe is indeed long – including several Italian regions. According to Eve Hepburn, ‘No longer content with trying to seek reform “from within”, for instance by creating stronger forms of regional governance in the semi-federal Italian state, many regionalist parties have now abandoned those plans altogether in favour of outright secession’. In fact, in holding their own unofficial referendums several Italian regions have been directly inspired by their Scottish and Catalan counterparts.

In Guayasén Marrero González’s legal analysis of the possible secession by Catalonia, Flanders or Scotland,

the presumption of automatic membership to the EU of [any] newly independent States seems rather speculative in light of international law and the practice of international organisations. Theories supporting the automatic accession (accession from within/internal enlargement) of these regions to the EU are not realistic. An interim period between independence and accession to the EU will, in principle, exist. Consequently, the newly independent State is no longer a Member State of the EU and EU law is not applicable on the territory of that new State on the date of its independence … Whereas the new State will not be immediately become a Member State of the EU and bound by EU law, the situation differs in respect of the obligations flowing from the ECHR, in particular the right to private and family life.

The legal implications for both national citizenship and EU citizenship being uncertain in a case of state succession, it’s equally unclear whether the far-reaching repercussions of secession in migration and citizenship matters are properly assessed by those advocating regional independence. At the same time, and although a regional break-up of Europe now seems far-fetched, Vanished Kingdoms have been common throughout European history. The secessionist movements also go partly in the direction of ideas expressed by authors such as Benjamin Barber, who has argued that ‘man is an urban animal’ and that the demise of the nation-state will lead to a growing role for cities (possibly with a global parliament of mayors), and bottom-up initiatives such as local governments for sustainability.

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