US Congress Debated US Policy on National Self-Determination Movements

News / 16.3.16

The US Congress’ Foreign Affairs House Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia and Emerging Threats discussed the US policy on the recognition of self-determination movements.

Dana Rohrabacher, Chairman of the Subcommittee, opened the debate with a rather practical approach to the issue an inviting everyone to debate it with an open mind “Over time, it is natural for populations of people to move and change, just as the characteristics of governments change. We should, and must, expect this. Yet, U.S. foreign policy thinking too often acts as if the borders of a nation-state are set in stone. As circumstances change, the United States must be open to the possibility that peacefully changing borders makes sense and promotes stability. Around the world today, the existing borders have been set by empires and flukes of history just as much as by the will of the people. If self-determination movements seek to change their political situation, we should consider the possibility that addressing those grievances will improve, not harm, peace and stability.”

Jason Sorens, author of several books on self-determination and with whom we have already had the pleasure to cooperate on several occasions, including conferences in Brussels and Barcelona organised jointly with Fundació Josep Irla, delivered a witness testimony.

He advocates for the constitutionalisation of the right to self-determination and the establishment of clear rules for independence referendums. He claims, “A legal path to independence can promote peace by constraining secessionists and central governments to pursue their aims through electoral and legislative means.”

On the question of whether the US should recognise newly independent states, he believes: “The U.S. government might wish to consider not only the interests of the host state, but also the interests of the seceding state and the effect of secession on regional stability. On average, replacing a state-to-nation relationship with a state-to-state relationship reduces violence.”

You can read his full testimony here.

Professor Paul Williams also delivered a testimonial speech. He referred to the specific case of Scotland and Catalonia and its relationship with the EU. He argued that “Without a coherent and cohesive approach to these movements, the EU has placed itself in an impossible and precarious position. If the EU were to consider recognizing Catalonia, this action could encourage further referenda in Belgium, Cyprus, Slovakia, Romania, and possibly Italy, which are all grappling with their own self-determination movements, raising opposition from these members.
However, if the EU denies recognition to Catalonia, this may generate a frozen economic conflict in the core of Europe that would drain political capital and economic resources from an economically fragile Spain. This frozen economic conflict will also create a “state,” with the Euro as its currency and seven million Catalonians that could retain their EU citizenship while living outside the EU. Furthermore,in many European states, non-recognition would be perceived as anti-democratic. Such a move would be extremely difficult to justify, given that nearly three-dozen states have achieved recognition by EU member states in the past twenty-five years.”

You can read his full testimony here.

Finally, Ivan Vejvoda, from the German Marshall Fund of the United States, worries about the uncertainty linked to self-determination processes in Europe, questioning “If it does secede […] will the EU accept it as a new member and under what rules of the road. Many open questions.” You can read his full testimony here.

To conclude the debate, the Subcommittee Chairman showed an open view towards the creation of new states and acknowledged the need to tackle the debate, not to postpone it.