A Brief History Of Secession Referenda in Europe

Scotland still hasn’t given up on holding another independence referendum within the next several years. Although London opposes the measure, it is notable that the debate over Scottish secession is not over whether or not a secession vote is moral or legal. Rather, the question is over whether or not such a vote is prudent at this time.

This is quite a departure from American politics in which any suggestion of independence for any region of the US—a country that is not even as old as the 300-year union between England and Scotland—is considered obviously illegal and beyond the pale of serious political discussion.

Moreover, in spite of the US’s (rather unwarranted) reputation for expansive local autonomy, we can find many cases in which European regimes were far more willing to compromise on local assertions of autonomy and independence, than is the case in the United States.

Although fully or partially successful secession movements are not frequent occurrences in Europe, we can nonetheless look to a number of cases in which regions successfully carried forward independence movements at least to the point that a referenda was held. In some of these cases, independence won voter approval and was enacted.

Let’s look at some of these cases to learn more.

Local Autonomy and Plebiscites as a Component of Classical Liberalism

In his 1919 book Nation, State, and Economy, Ludwig von Mises concludes that local independence is an assumed characteristic within a liberal (i.e., a “classically liberal” of “libertarian”) polity. He writes:

When a part of the people of the state wants to drop out of the union, liberalism does not hinder it from doing so. Colonies that want to become independent need only do so… no people and no part of a people shall be held against its will in a political association that it does not want.”

Moreover, in his 1927 book Liberalism: In the Classical Tradition, Mises encourages the use of plebiscites in carrying this out. Mises writes:

whenever the inhabitants of a particular territory, whether it be a single village, a whole district, or a series of adjacent districts, make it known, by a freely conducted plebiscite, that they no longer wish to remain united to the state to which they belong at the time, but wish either to form an independent state or to attach themselves to some other state, their wishes are to be respected and complied with.

To some readers, this might seem as a very radical position that Mises is taking. But, writing in the late teens and 1920s, Mises was working from what was becoming an established—albeit infrequently used—strategy for maintaining or increasing local autonomy within European states.

European Independence Plebiscites: A Quick History

Perhaps the earliest uses of plebiscites to win local support for secession movements occurred in the late eighteenth century during the French Revolution. In an effort to enlarge the French state, plebiscites were used in the Papal States enclaves of Avignon and Comtat Venaissin in 1791, in Savoy in 1792, and in the Belgian Communes, Nice, and the Rhine Valley in 1793.1

In none of these cases was full independence contemplated, and these plebiscites only gave the voters a choice between the status quo and joining the French Republic. Nonetheless, pro-French sentiment was high in many of these areas and voters did indeed in many cases chose to secede from their status quo polities (i.e., the Papal States, Belgium, Sardinia) and join the French state.

By the nineteenth century, plebiscites were being increasingly used as part of the political process of changing which regime controlled certaint districts and regions:

[Plebiscites] were held in the transfer of control of Rome from the Papal State to Italy in 1870, in Denmark’s sale of St Thomas and St John to the United States in 1868, and in Sweden’s cession of St. Bartholomew to France in 1877.2

The Ionian Islands were transferred to Greece by Great Britain after the move was approved by voters in an 1863 plebiscite.

Plebiscites were also used—beginning with the aftermath of the Treaty of Prague in 1866—in attempts to settle the so-called “Schleswig Question” over the borderlands between Denmark and the German Confederation.

Secession in the Twentieth Century

By the beginning of the twentieth century, the idea of holding local elections to settle border disputes or the inclusion of a region within a certain polity was anything but novel.

In a 1905 plebiscite, nearly 100 percent of Norwegian voters approved dissolving Norway’s union with Sweden. Norway became a fully independent state three months later.

In a 1918 plebiscite, Iceland’s voters approved independence for the country in a personal union with Denmark under the Danish king. (The king would remain the head of state Iceland became a republic after another plebiscite in 1944).

In 1919, the Austrian region of Vorarlberg held a plebiscite to determine if the region should secede from Austria and join Switzerland as a new canton. 81 percent of Vorarlberg voters approved the measure, but the movement failed due to opposition from the Swiss and Austrian governments, among others.

A plebiscite was held in Carinthia in October 1920 to resolve an ongoing border dispute between Yugoslavia and the new Austrian Republic. 59% voted to attach Carinthia to Austria. In spite of opposition from Yugoslavian forces, the region ultimately became Austrian.

After World War I, several plebiscites were held as a  means of implementing the Treaty of Versailles. These plebiscites, unlike locally-driven plebiscites in, say, Voralberg and Iceland, were conducted under significant pressure from outside great powers—namely, the victorious Entente Powers. Where plebiscites were actually held in German territory—such as in East Prussia—the results favored the Germans, but the Entente Powers also simply transferred some areas of Germany to Poland and Czechoslovakia. (The Third Reich would later employ plebiscites in Austria and the Sudetenland as retribution for these territorial transfers.)

In 1946, a plebiscite was held to determine if the Faroe Islands should secede from Denmark. It narrowly failed.

In 1955, voters in the Saar, a French protectorate, voted to join Germany.

In 1964, Maltese voters approved independence from the United Kingdom in a plebiscite.

In 1990, Slovenia declared independence from Yugoslavia via plebiscite. The new Slovenia republic ultimately won independence after the nearly bloodless Ten-Day War. 

In the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, plebiscites were held in several Soviet republics including Ukraine and the Baltic states. 

(Outside Europe, of course, many more secession plebiscites were held throughout the twentieth century as part of the process of decolonization in Africa and Asia.)

Plebiscites in Perspective

As we can see from these examples, Mises’s position in favor of plebiscites in to implement self-determination plans through secession were not especially radical in the context of the late 1920s. After all, by the early twentieth century, they had come to be used a tool for settling border disputes and as a means of allowing for local vetoes on international agreements involving attempts at changing which state controlled certain regions. In many cases, plebiscites did not offer the option of total independence, but provided an option to attach the region in question to a different sovereign state. But in some cases, plebiscites were used to establish the creation of new sovereign states such as Slovenia, Estonia, Iceland, and Norway.  In many cases, the results of plebiscites were not carried out or the results were short-lived even when implemented. For example, the Ionian Islands changed hands more than once after the 1863 vote.

But in all cases, plebiscites were employed to determine a question of secession, whether or not the end goal was ultimately full independence. In this, they have worked relatively well. In many cases, these plebiscites have helped to peacefully settle disputes and to send a message to central regimes about the prudence of granting independence to separatist regions that vote overwhelmingly for independence. 

Given all this it would be odd to regard a vote on independence in Scotland—or anywhere else—as some sort of outlandish or radical political strategy. 

  • 1. For an extensive description of nineteenth-century plebiscites, see Sarah Wambaugh, A Monograph on Plebiscites: With a Collection of Official Documents. (New York: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1920)
  • 2. Michael Hechter and Elizabeth Borland, “National Self-Determination: The Emergence of an International Norm,” in Social Norms, ed. Michael Hechter and Karl-Dieter Opp (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2001), p 193.

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