Secessionism and Autonomy

15 March 2022
Federal Scholar in Residence - Eurac Research

Why are some nationalist movements strongly secessionist? In other words, why is the predominant objective of some movements outright independence as opposed to increased autonomy within the state? I say ‘predominant’ because nationalist movements are almost always internally divided between autonomist and a secessionist streams. There is potential for the movement as a whole to go either way, towards seeking increased autonomy or outright independence.

My recent book seeks to answer this question. The book is not about the origins of nationalism but about what makes secessionism strong in advanced industrialized liberal-democracies. It is not a prescriptive book insofar as it is not looking to tell politicians what to do; rather it looks to solve a puzzle. Its basic ontological point of departure is that nationalist movements in liberal- democracies are here to stay and that multinational democracies (for political and institutional reasons as opposed to essentialist ones) are perennial. The normative basis at the heart of the enquiry in the book is the question of how to preserve multinational democracies and keep them relatively free of really severe conflict.

Empirically, it was the cases of Catalonia and Scotland that drew me to this line of investigation because strong secessionism in Western Europe was not supposed to happen according to the literature of the 1990s and 2000s. Indeed, European integration, past and existing accommodation practices, and globalization were supposed to make seeking an independent state something passé. Moreover, the strengthening of secessionism did not happen everywhere in Western Europe; indeed, it did not occur in Flanders and South Tyrol, despite the fact that such outcome was a distinct possibility in both cases considering the multiples political crises of Belgium and the past presence of secessionism and irredentism in South Tyrol). The diverging outcomes only added to the puzzle.

I was just beginning my research for this project when I undertook my stay in Bolzano/Bozen in the summer of 2017 when I was Federal Scholar in Residence. This stay was crucial in the discovery process relating to my enquiry. In fact, without this stay, my book would have been quite different and, in all likelihood, it would not have yielded the type of elegant theory of secessionism I was hoping to put forward by solving the empirical puzzle.

The first thing I realized while in Bolzano/Bozen was the theoretical importance of the case of South Tyrol for explaining a weakening of secessionism. Then, when searching for the profound reasons for this outcome, I heard about the work of the bilateral commissions and the political slogan of dynamic autonomy. This peculiar characterization of autonomy drew my attention, and I immediately thought of Belgium, where Flemish secessionism has remained weak and where the autonomy of Flanders had also been dynamic. As I quickly contemplated the nature of Catalan autonomy in Spain during the 2010s, I thought it to be static. I thought Scottish autonomy between 1999 and 2014 was also mostly static. An answer to my puzzle started to emerge.

To understand what leads to strong secessionism, I conducted a controlled comparison of, on the one hand, Catalonia and Scotland (where secessionism strengthened in the early 2010s) and, on the other hand, Flanders and South Tyrol (where secessionism remained weak). The design was such that I was looking for something that Flanders and South Tyrol shared but which was not found in Catalonia and Scotland during my time period. The design was also such that I could eliminate several different potential explanatory factors because they were shared by all the cases (EU integration and its crises, the wave populism, and, most importantly, the degree of autonomy, which is similar for all four cases according to the Regional Authority Index).

I found that it was not the degree or the design of autonomy that mattered for explaining the strength of secessionism, but rather its nature, more specifically the extent to which it evolved in time. I made a conceptual distinction between static and dynamic autonomy: autonomy is dynamic if it adjusts laterally and/or expands in time; autonomy is static if takes the form of a final, unchangeable settlement. My conclusion, drawn from the controlled comparison, is that static autonomy stimulates secessionism while dynamic autonomy staves it off. That is, in a nutshell, the theory of secessionism put forward in the book.

Static autonomy places members of a minority nation before only two self-determination options: independence and the status quo. As such, it generates incentives for supporting secessionism. Dynamic autonomy involves self-determination options other than independence and the status quo, in the form of adjusted autonomy. As a result, dynamic autonomy reduces incentives for supporting secession.

To put it in historical institutionalist terms, autonomy that does not adapt to the evolving processes of nationalism generates tension between the institutional and socio-political orders of the minority nation (and this tension comes out in the form of secessionism) whereas an autonomy that adapts to changing circumstances, including the transformation in the articulation of national identity and interests, keeps the institutional and socio-political orders of the minority nation congruent.

André Lecours

André Lecours is Professor in the School of Political Studies at the University of Ottawa and Vice-President of the Canadian Political Science Association. His main research interests are nationalism and federalism. He is the editor of "New Institutionalism. Theory and Analysis" published by the University of Toronto Press in 2005, the author of "Basque Nationalism and the Spanish State" (University of Nevada Press, 2007), the co-author (with Daniel Béland) of "Nationalism and Social Policy. The Politics of Territorial Solidarity" (Oxford University Press, 2008); the co-author (with Daniel Béland, Gregory Marchildon, Haizhen Mou and Rose Olfert) of "Fiscal Federalism and Equalization Policy in Canada. Political and Economic Dimensions" (University of Toronto Press, 2017); and the author of "Nationalism, Secessionism, and Autonomy" (Oxford University Press, 2021). He was the Federal Scholar in Residence at Eurac Research in 2017.


Lecours, A. Secessionism and Autonomy.

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