Independence Referendums

Direct democracy has been a means to gain greater autonomy for national and regional movements. In the past decades, many national and regional movements have organised independence referendums, with varying results. NISE is in the process of mapping these endeavours, and wants to showcase European independence referendums on a geographical map with timeline.

The data and background information below has been provided bij dr. Alexandra Remond, a Research Fellow at the Centre on Constitutional Change. Her PhD thesis Questioned Sovereignties: Independence Referendums and Secession in a Comparative Perspective (University of Edinburgh) considered the nature and consequences of independence referendums; notably whether they increase or decrease the likelihood of secession or support for secession

An independence referendum is a type of referendum in which the citizens of a territory decide whether the territory should become an independent sovereign state. Secessionist movements call for a statehood on behalf of a people: a nation in need of a state and where the ‘people’ are sovereign. An independence referendum is a tool for the people to directly express themselves on how they should be governed and under which state. An independence referendum that results in a majority of vote for independence does not always ultimately result in independence however. Nor are they always legal, democratic or peaceful



Independence referendums are far from a rare historical event. Some referendums have been legal and conducted peacefully, while others were unofficial and escalated in violent confrontations.  On the 18th of September 2014 Scotland held a referendum asking its people whether they wished to remain part of the United Kingdom or become a new independent sovereign state. Three years on, the government of Catalonia followed the Scottish example and held a referendum to separate from Spain on the 1st of October. The UK government did not contest Scotland’s right to secede and engaged in negotiations over the referendum process leading to the Edinburgh Agreement in 2012. The Spanish government, on the other hand, has categorically refused to acknowledge the possibility of Catalonia separating and the Spanish Constitutional Court ruled secession unconstitutional.

Some independence referendums resulted in a new state joining the international system, such as Norway gaining independence in 1905 from Sweden following a referendum, or more recently, Montenegro in 2006 separating from Serbia. These far less-known referendums can tell us about what makes for a democratic and peaceful consultation on an often divisive question. Indeed, the referendum in Montenegro was a peaceful process which contrast markedly with the ones held in the former soviet republics where the independence referendums where followed by an escalation of violence and civil war.

As we can see from this map and timeline, most referendums have been held in former Communist countries. This can be partially explained by their constitution which allowed for secession, the ideology at the time, as well as a ‘demonstration’ effect whereby holding a referendum becomes a norm. Indeed, having a majority of a sub-national population expressing their desire to become independent brings legitimacy to a secessionist movement, whether the referendum is consented by the official government of the state or not. We can also see that referendums on independence have come in waves. Furthermore, History has demonstrated that when countries are asked to vote on independence, more often than not, they say yes.

At least two more independence referendums have been planned in the near future in New Caledonia (2018, from France) and Bougainville (2019, from Papua New Guinea); and possibly a second plebiscite in Scotland following the end of the ‘Brexit’ process if the UK withdraws from the European Union. It is therefore worth considering these past cases and learn from them.








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