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Drivers of and Responses to Secessionist Movements in Europe

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: European Studies
Wordcount: 1746 words Published: 23rd Sep 2019

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Drivers of and Responses to Secessionist Movements in Europe 

Policy Brief

Drivers of and Responses to Secessionist Movements in Europe 


This brief is for the President of the European Union’s Committee of Regions and examines the drivers of, and responses to secessionist movements in Europe. Through comparative analysis of secessionist movements in Europe, this brief will attempt to identify the factors motivating secessionist attempts, and which guide states’ subsequent responses.


Defined as demands by an ethno-nationalist group for either independence from, or significant regional autonomy within, a modern nation-state, secessions pose a challenge to the stability and territorial integrity of a state. This brief is both temporally and territorially-specific, focusing on European secessionist movements within the post-Cold War context. Given that these are the most recent examples of secessionist movements occurring in similar geopolitical contexts, they will be most relevant in identifying the drivers of, and responses to secession. By comparing cases according to the Most Similar Systems Design, the brief explains the drivers of and differing policy responses adopted.

Key Considerations

While many explanations for secession abound, the brief identifies commonalities across the cases, primarily dissatisfaction with the political and economic status quo, and international incentives. This brief also seeks to identify how security concerns and realpolitik drive differing policy responses.

Internal Drivers: Grievances

At the domestic level, dissatisfaction with the political and economic status quo is instrumental in driving secessionist movements[1]. Demands for sovereignty are motivated by economic reasons, and independence is understood as a means of addressing the fiscal imbalances and improving the provision of public goods for the community[2].

  • The economic crisis in Europe has fanned the desire for autonomy—particularly in regions that are economic powerhouses[3]. Secessionist movements have claimed that their territories are being short-changed in current political formations and that independence would carry financial reward[4]
  • Catalonia accounts for 20% of Spain’s GDP (16% of the population); dissatisfaction regarding the economic exploitation of Catalans who pay a disproportionate amount of taxes
  • Flemish secessionist movements present the financial transfers—via the national budget and social security—from North to South as argument for independence[5]

External Drivers: International Incentives

European integration has reduced many of the negative externalities associated with small sovereign states, creating political and economic incentives for secession.[6] European secessionist parties hence increasingly seek to harmonise national sovereignty with transferring power to Brussels, conflating the choice for Europe as a choice against the state.[7]

  • The Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliance (N-VA) adopted the “Size of Nations” approach[8], using the existence of greater European integration as an argument against Belgium’s inability to implement an efficient economic policy
  • Catalan secessionists juxtapose a modern European identity with that of a conservative Spanish identity, with secessionist discourse based on the idea that “we are not Spanish and we are better…than they are”[9]
  • The EU is portrayed as a safety net, allowing secessionists to reassure their supporters of their capability to lead the state[10]

International Response: Realpolitik

International recognition of a secessionist states’ independence is fundamentally guided by realpolitik. When assessing claims to self-determination, states are likely to put greater emphasis on a re-evaluation of their own parochial interests[11], choosing to bestow recognition only when it serves their political aims.

  • Recognition of Croatia by France, Britain and Germany reflected the prioritization of European unity over their national interests. Britain and France’s overriding interest in maintaining European unity drove them to follow the German lead despite their opposition to Croatian secession.[12]
  • Kosovo is not recognised by all EU members, and only half of UN members. [13] The divisive case of Kosovo’s independence underlines how recognition is driven by the geopolitical interests of individual states.
  • States dealing with secession within their borders less likely to recognize the independence of secessionist states—fear that it would establish a precedent for further secession.

Domestic Response: Security

Domestic responses of the host state to the secessionist group is principally informed by security concerns; states permit secession only if the loss of the territory does not threaten the core.[14] Moreover, external security interests also determine whether and how much, states coerce secessionists.[15]

  • The British government was prepared to permit Scottish independence because it did not anticipate that a contagion effect would ripple through the union[16]
  • The Spanish government has proven to be especially restrictive in dealing with secessionist movements. The fear in Madrid is that granting further rights would weaken the already-enfeebled central state further, creating more incentives for regions to secede[17]
  • The complete lack of dyadic threat a future Slovak state would pose to a future Czech one made the Velvet Divorce possible. Lack of historical enmity between the 2 groups, complemented by a benign regional environment meant that the Czechs had little to fear in allowing Slovak secession.[18]


  • Secessionist movements are driven by a mixture of domestic grievances and opportunism, with the foundational factor driving secessionism being the economy. Groups choose to secede as a result of the perceived economic benefits independence provides—whether through transnational organisations or autonomy.
  • A state’s response to secessionist movement is always motivated by its security concerns as it seeks to maintain its territorial integrity in the face of challenges. These concerns are influenced by external factors—the geopolitical context—and internal.
  • An understanding of the drivers of and responses to secessionist movements must thus account for both the domestic sphere, and the international sphere.


  • Bieri, M. (2014). Seperatism in the EU. CSS Analyses in Security Policy, (160)
  • Butt, A.I., 2017. Secession and Security, Cornell University Press
  • Coggins, B.L., 2006. Secession, recognition & the international politics of statehood
  • Ker-Lindsay, James & Ker-Lindsay, J., 2012. The Foreign Policy of Counter Secession: Preventing the Recognition of Contested States 1st ed., Oxford University Press
  • Muro, D. & Vlaskamp, M.C., 2016. How do prospects of EU membership influence support for secession? A survey experiment in Catalonia and Scotland. West European Politics, 39(6)
  • Pavkovic, A. and P. Radan (2016). Creating New States. London: Routledge
  • Vandecasteele, Bruno, De Ville, F., & Vos, H. 2012. Belgium, separatism, and the EU. Fair Observer.

[1] Butt, A.I., 2017.

[2] Muro, D. & Vlaskamp, M.C., 2016.

[3] Bieri, M. 2014.

[4] Ker-Lindsay, James & Ker-Lindsay, J., 2012. 

[5] Vandecasteele, Bruno, De Ville, F., & Vos, H. 2012.

[6] Muro, D. & Vlaskamp, M.C., 2016. 7

[7] Ibid, 2016

[8] Ker-Lindsay, James & Ker-Lindsay, J., 2012. 

[9] Ibid, 2016

[10] Pavkovic, A. and P. Radan, 2016

[11] Ker-Lindsay, James & Ker-Lindsay, J., 2012.  23

[12] Coggins, B.L., 2006. Secession, recognition & the international politics of statehood, 218

[13] Ibid, 2012, 24

[14] Ker-Lindsay, James & Ker-Lindsay, J., 2012. 82

[15] Butt, A.I., 2017, 2

[16] Ibid, 2012, 83

[17] Bieri, M. 2014, 4

[18] Ibid, 2017, 189-191


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