Scottish referendum: Dreams vs. realities

Scottish referendum: Dreams vs. realities

Since the end of the Cold War, the number of sovereign states in the international system has increased, and state borders have changed significantly. The end of the bloc system following the dissolution of the USSR, with accompanying nationalism, triggered violent conflict around the world during the 1990s, leading to the creation of newly independent states. Most of these states were perceived as natural outcomes of the world system’s evolution. Some had hoped that, after the 1990s, the predilection for the division of states would slow down, if not stop for good.

However, seeking independence or at least gaining autonomy is still high on the agenda of various players around the world. East Timor, Montenegro, Serbia, Kosovo and South Sudan are among the states that have declared independence and been recognized in the 21st century. All of them, except Kosovo, have become members of the United Nations, which augments global recognition. On the other hand, recent declarations of independence from Abkhazians and South Ossetians have not been recognized globally, next to many other earlier unilateral declarations.

There are also several autonomous areas with varying degrees of autonomy within existing states, and many states are facing the threat of secessionist movements. The most popular ones in Europe are the Catalans and Basques in Spain, the Corsicans in France, the South Tyroleans in Italy and the Flemish in Belgium. There are many more in other parts of the world.

A landmark referendum for independence, with a voting turnout of 86 percent, took place in Scotland, the United Kingdom, on Sept. 18. Residents of Scotland voted to remain part of the U.K. with 55 percent of the vote, while 45 percent favored independence. Thus the continuation of a 307-year-old union was ensured, for now. Even though the results could be considered a success for the U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, who narrowly escaped being known as “the prime minister who lost Scotland,” the vote will have serious impacts on the political future of the U.K.

The Scots had earlier gained various privileges in a 1997 referendum and formed their own parliament in 1999. Yet these were not enough; especially the ongoing economic problems and political differences between the capital and the rest of the country triggered independence demands among Scots. In the end, it seems that in the Scottish case, the reality on the ground has outweighed the dreams of independence. Despite a source of income in the extensive oil reserves in the North Sea, Scots face several difficult choices regarding security, finance, currency, recognition, and EU/NATO membership. As a result, Scotts took a step back from the uncertainties of independence.

Yet, the closeness of the result was a clear signal to political leaders that maintaining the status quo is no longer an option for the U.K. Recognizing this, both the government and the opposition party have already promised further devolution not only for Scotland, but also for Wales and Northern Ireland. Thus, devolution of power and closing the political and economic gap among cities and regions will be the main challenge in the U.K. for the foreseeable future, and a game-changer in the upcoming national elections of 2015.

Clearly, the referendum in Scotland will not be the last effort for seeking sovereignty in Europe. Many ethnic groups and peoples in Europe followed the process carefully, learning lessons applicable to their own fears and aspirations. Scottish nationalists may have failed to reach their immediate goal, independence, but they have energized other separatists across Europe. The most visible of these are Catalans in Spain, who, despite opposition from Madrid, will stage a referendum for independence in November. We must wait and see who will follow them.