The September 18 Scottish referendum on whether or not to depart the United Kingdom was largely portrayed as a local affair.
Although the referendum was unsuccessful, it strikes at the very foundations of the NATO alliance. NATO capitals—especially Washington and Berlin—should be deeply concerned.
Why is the Scottish case so significant? It matters for at least two reasons.
First, Scottish independence could have emasculated Great Britain as a robust military leader within world affairs. Second, Scottish independence could have encouraged—and may yet encourage—a wave of secessions across NATO, from Canada to Italy.
It remains unclear what an independent Scottish government would have done about NATO. Certainly Edinburgh would have applied for European Union and United Nations membership, but what about taking on the active security commitments called for under the Atlantic Charter?
In this photo illustration, pound coins are placed on a Union Jack flag on August 20, 2014 in Glasgow, Scotland. First Minister Alex Salmond's, chief economic adviser has insisted Scotland has viable options for its currency if there is a yes vote in the independence referendum on September the18th.
The Scottish Nationalist leader, Alex Salmond, asserted that an independent Scotland would be nuclear-free and avoid getting pulled into Middle Eastern conflicts but would apply for NATO membership. It is inconceivable how Scotland could participate in NATO without a commitment to live within its nuclear umbrella.
The other side of the coin is what Scottish independence would have, or will do after a future referendum, to the economy and security budget of what some have derided as a “rump Britannia?”
The fact is that England makes up over 80 percent of the population of the U.K. and Scotland less than 10 opercent. The loss of North Sea oil, at least in part, would hurt London but Scottish reliance on diminishing oil revenues over time would put its economy in jeopardy. Nonetheless, the loss of strategic military bases and units, the loss of oil, and the uncertainty the Scottish departure would entail would hurt Great Britain.
But had Scotland voted for secession, NATO would be facing an even greater threat. Scottish independence might hearten a number independence movements in NATO countries, jeopardizing their territorial and political integrity and consequently calling into question the long-term viability of the world’s greatest military alliance.
Where are those movements?
Photo Credit: NATO
In Belgium, tensions between French-speaking Walloons and the Flemish (Dutch) population have been on the rise in recent years and there is a simmering sense among many in Flanders that they should be independent. Belgium would not simply split in half: it is likely that the map of Europe would have to be redrawn, with Wallonia perhaps attaching itself (de jure or de facto) to Paris and other splinters attaching to Luxembourg. In any event, Belgium as a country would be done and none of these tiny countries would make a major contribution to NATO or European unity.
More likely is Catalan independence, the effort to break up the country of Spain. Spain’s Catalans feel that they carry a disproportionate economic load as their wealth is redistributed around the country. They have an independent history, language, and spirit, and a Catalan “revolt” could re-inspire the vision of a separate Basque state, resulting in the demise of Spain as we know it today.
To the surprise of many, the old Republic of Venice seems to have resurrected itself in 2014. Earlier this year, 89 percent of voters in Venice approved a ballot calling for Venetian independence. Of course, it is unclear what will happen in the future, but united Italy is less than a century and a half old and thus one can imagine parts of it—like Venice—going their own way.
Among the largest NATO countries, one other has a history of secessionist movements: Canada. Although it seems as if the razor-thin Quebecois defeats in the past 20 years have settled the question of French-Canadian independence, nonetheless an independent Scotland could have quickly reignited old flames. In 1995 the secessionists lost 50.6 percent to 49.4 percent. It would not take much for that movement to grow beyond its usual 40 percent popularity in Quebec and significantly limit the strength of one of America’s most valuable allies.
Washington and Berlin should be watching all of this very, very carefully. Independence and secessionist movements of various kinds are en vogue worldwide: Kosovo, South Sudan, Somaliland, eastern Ukraine, and Central Asia…
People wave “estelada” flags, that symbolize Catalonia's independence, during a demonstration calling for the independence of Catalonia in Barcelona, Spain, Friday, Sept. 19, 2014. A day after Scotland rejected breaking away from Britain, the regional parliament in Spain's Catalonia is expected to grant its leader the power to call a secession referendum that the central government in Madrid says would be illegal. Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has vowed to prevent the Nov. 9 vote that separatist Catalans want to hold in the wealthy Mediterranean region of 7.5 million people. Spain's constitution doesn't allow referendums that do not include all Spaniards and experts say Spain's Constitutional Court would rule the vote illegal. The referendum in Catalonia wouldn't result in secession; it would ask Catalans whether they favor secession. If the answer is Yes, Catalan regional leader Artur Mas says that would give him a political mandate to negotiate a path toward independence. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)
If major European powers, like the U.K. and Spain, fall prey to secessionary movements, it means an even greater load for the U.S. as the world’s lone responsible superpower. In the NATO alliance few countries even pretend to maintain their financial commitments to arm and train their national militaries. The alliance is already a bit threadbare, but secessions would put the U.S. into an even more difficult position.
And Berlin? The Germans have successfully dodged taking on the threat posture assumed by the U.K., U.S., France, Poland, and other NATO allies. They’ve tended to cast themselves as humanitarians (e.g. sending unarmed personnel to Afghanistan as “trainers") and as bankers keeping the euro, and thus the EU, afloat. There has been a sort of tacit agreement that Germany handle the money and its smaller neighbors go closer to harm’s way. But, should major NATO partners splinter, Berlin may have to step up the depth of its commitment to world security.
In any event, the Scots did not achieve independence—this time—but they did get U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron to promise increased “benefits” for staying in the Union. It is unclear what those benefits will be, but over time it may be the case that Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland all live increasingly on the largesse of London.
Independence or no, devolution may be so costly as to have a real effect on the security budget and commitments that the United Kingdom can make.
Eric Patterson, Ph.D. is Dean of the School of Government at Regent University and a research fellow at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs. He is the author or editor of 11 books, including "Ending Wars Well"(Yale UP, 2012).
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