34

In the last few years, there have been a few attempts made by such territories to achieve independence. Particularly in Europe, we had the cases of Scotland and Catalonia.

In the case of Scotland, the power to hold a referendum was granted by the government in Westminster by the Scottish Independence Referendum Act 2013. This is an exception to what I am looking for in that the path to independence was dependent on the UK parliament as a whole granting independence, and not just the unilateral decision of, say, the Scottish parliament in Holyrood.

In the case of Catalonia, the Spanish government declared the referendum unconstitutional, so clearly the ability to unilaterally declare independence was stymied.

I am also not interested in attempts to declare independence through force, or de-facto independence achieved through wide-spread international acceptance.

Do any countries provide a legal pathway for independence that can be taken by a territory unilaterally, which cannot be halted or vetoed by central government?

2
41

According to the The Ashgate Research Companion to Secession only 7 countries out of 89 surveyed had any explicit provisions for secession in their constitution: Austria, Ethiopia, France (overseas territories only), Saint Christopher and Nevis, Singapore, the USSR, Czechoslovakia, and [the Union of] Serbia and Montenegro (of 2003). Some scholars argue that Canada's constitution permits it too.

Of these, Serbia and Montenegro acted on them successfully, dissolving in 2006. The USSR and Czechoslovakia also did so farther in the past.

The lack of provisions doesn't mean secession is impossible by non-violent means. The book notes that non-violent secession succeeded some 60% of the time, despite there not being explicit provisions in the original country's constitution in most cases.

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  • 3
    Was Ethiopia's provision for secession written before or after Eritrea's war for independence?
    – dan04
    Dec 3 '19 at 1:48
  • 9
    @Henry The two were kingdoms in a personal union, not really one country; this is still before the notion of a "nation state", so it's hard to compare it to modern times. If you allowed for personal unions and similar, you would probably find hundreds of examples of "countries" dissolving and joining back again without any violence. It was a pretty common occurence in Europe before nationalism became a thing; whole regions were inherited or slipped outside the inheritance of particular dynasties (and individual rulers).
    – Luaan
    Dec 3 '19 at 9:19
  • 22
    > Singapore — Singapore can be further divided? How? Into independent city blocks or something?
    – user28434
    Dec 3 '19 at 12:00
  • 5
    Singapore doesn't have a provision for secession, but for the opposite (inclusion?) - as the linked book states, "Article 6 of Singapore's constitution stipulates that the sovereignty of Singapore can only be surrendered if approved by a two-thirds vote [sic] at [sic] nationally organized referendum" Dec 3 '19 at 12:40
  • 6
    @Luaan a personal union by definition includes multiple states. The only thing ordinarily shared is the monarch. The concept of a nation-state (which started well before the split of Norway and Sweden) doesn't preclude a nation-state from being in a personal union (e.g. the UK and Canada, etc are in a personal Union -- the Commonwealth of Nations yet they each would be considered nation states)
    – eques
    Dec 3 '19 at 18:58
26

The Good Friday Agreement, between the UK and Ireland provides for a non-violent route to the North of Ireland to become part of a united Ireland.

It sets up conditions under which referendums must be held in both the North of Ireland and the Republic of Ireland (essentially, and if both approve then the British and Irish government have made a "binding" commitment to implement the referendums. The Good Friday Agreement is now part of the constitutional structure of the UK.

As the Taoiseach of Ireland said:

Neither the British parliament nor people have any legal right under this agreement to impede the achievement of Irish unity if it had the consent of the people North and South...

This gives an example of a country which provides a legal pathway for independence that can be taken by a territory unilaterally, which cannot be halted or vetoed by central government without violating an agreed and ratified treaty.

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  • 16
    Technically not independence. Northern Ireland would cease to exist and become part of the Republic of Ireland.
    – CJ Dennis
    Dec 3 '19 at 3:28
  • It does rely on the Secretary of State for NI to call a border poll (which they're supposed to do if "it appears likely to him that a majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom and form part of a united Ireland") so it isn't 100% unilateral.
    – DavidW
    Dec 3 '19 at 11:52
  • Which Taoiseach said that? All I can find from searching is Ahern in the 90's.
    – bobsburner
    Dec 3 '19 at 12:53
  • 6
    Shouldn't this be "Northern Ireland" rather than "North of Ireland"? Northern Ireland has a specific meaning (the region of the island of Ireland that is part of the UK) while North of Ireland is vague and ambiguous Dec 4 '19 at 14:23
  • 1
    @LordJebusVII Particularly as the northern-most point of the island of Ireland (Malin Head) is not in Northern Ireland. Dec 4 '19 at 15:50
10

The homerule on Greenland and Faroe Islands are free to declare independence from Denmark. The Greenland case came up earlier this year when Trump tried to buy it from Denmark.

7

Sort of. Quebec had a few referendums about separation from Canada and eventually there was a Supreme Court of Canada ruling on it. It basically said (taken from the wikipedia article linked below):

Unilateral secession was not legal. However, should a referendum decide in favour of independence, the rest of Canada "would have no basis to deny the right of the government of Quebec to pursue secession."

The exact procedure is still debated however.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reference_Re_Secession_of_Quebec

4
  • +1. Note also that Parti Quebecois fought against rules that mandated clarifying the question, after their narrow loss in 1995. I believe a referendum question now pretty much has to spell out "do you want to secede?" whereas before it could say "do you think Quebec should renegotiate its status?". That was also brought in later, so one would say that, in practice, Canada very much has some rules governing secession. see jstor.org/stable/3330895?seq=1 but... paywall. Dec 3 '19 at 3:23
  • 8
    The Clarity Act, which was enacted a few years after the 1995 Referendum, also specifies that the province that wants to leave has to have widespread support within the province. The intent of the Clarity Act has been understood as meaning it is not sufficient for a province to leave with as little as 50% of the vote but I don't believe a specific threshold like 55% or 60% is specified, meaning the Clarity Act is ironically rather murky.
    – Henry
    Dec 3 '19 at 4:14
  • Is there any sort of overview that explains the difference between unilateral succession and no basis to block following a referendum? Is it purely about allowing the referendum to take place?
    – Jontia
    Dec 3 '19 at 10:52
  • @Jontia - Quebec has already had two referenda on their relationship with the rest of Canada and there were no obstacles to those taking place. The Clarity Act seems to be mostly about raising the threshold, at least morally, of how many Quebeckers would have to be in favour of leaving. It demands a clear question and a result that is unambiguous but I don't recall all the wording and nuances. You should know that the first referendum was a rather convoluted affair that just talked about getting permission to negotiate a new relationship with the rest of Canada without necessarily leaving.
    – Henry
    Dec 4 '19 at 12:18
4

The constitution of Liechtenstein contains a provision for any of the eleven individual municipalities to unilaterally secede from the union, if a majority of its residents are in favour:

Individual municipalities shall be entitled to secede from the union. The decision on whether to initiate a secession procedure shall be made by a majority of the Liechtenstein citizens eligible to vote who reside there. Secession shall be regulated by a law or, as the case may be, by an international treaty. If secession is regulated by a treaty, a second vote shall be held in the municipality after the treaty negotiations have been concluded.
Article 4(2) - Constitution of the Principality of Liechtenstein

In addition, the constitution of Uzbekistan grants the Republic of Karakalpakstan the right to secede unilaterally if supported by its residents in a referendum:

The Republic of Karakalpakstan shall have the right to secede from the Republic of Uzbekistan on the basis of a nation-wide referendum held by the people of Karakalpakstan.
Article 74 - Constitution of the Republic of Uzbekistan

-5

No. In political science, a government where a sub-national polity has the de jure ability to succeed is called a "Confederation" and there is presently no extant Confederation in the world at this time (The "Swiss Confederation" doesn't count because the term "Confederacy" has had some linguistics drift from when the "Swiss Confederacy" became the official name of Switzerland and what Confederacy means today. Back then, Confederation meant the same thing as the modern term Federation does today).

The closest example to what you are looking for is the Eurpoean Union as their charter does give member-states the right to leave (Brexit anyone?) although there's nothing compelling the EU to make it a smooth and easy process. That said, the EU is not really considered a nation similar to the United States but a Super-national organization like NATO or the UN (though Germany and France have some ambitions to make the EU a more Federal polity like the United States... though there is some push back given how things went the last time Germany tried to Unite Europe under one national banner.).

EDIT: Forgot the historically brief nation of Gran Colombia, which was a Federal Nation in South America which broke apart. At it's height, it contained the present day territory of Colombia, Venezuela, and Ecuador. The three "nations" were united during their indepences war against Spain and the Gran Colombia-Peru war, but these two events happened rather quickly before the nation could draft formal constitutional documents and by the time the second war concluded, regional issues within the three states led to the peaceful dissolution of Gran Colombia... the term "Gran Colombia" was actually never used during the "nations" existence but was coined by historians to distinguish this nation with the Republic of Colombia, one of the three nations following the separation.

5
  • 1
    "not really considered a nation"? Definitely not a nation - despite the desires of those in Brussels for it to become one... Dec 3 '19 at 13:28
  • @ChrisMelville Agreed. However, I am using it as its the closest the world has to a true confederate government at this moment in history and it's rather hard to show the best known historical example because the CSA had some other more glaring problems and only existed for five years before it collapsed... The problem with most Confederacies is that they tend to either break apart or quickly reform into Federations.
    – hszmv
    Dec 3 '19 at 13:58
  • 4
    " though there is some push back given how things went the last time Germany tried to Unite Europe under one national banner." Why is this here? What relevance does it have to the question?
    – Jontia
    Dec 3 '19 at 14:21
  • You have answered with a clear "No". How do you account for the counter-examples of Greenland and the Faroe Islands which have the de jure right to secede? Dec 4 '19 at 16:02
  • @MartinBonnersupportsMonica: Because rights imply things which the government cannot give or take away. In those cases, the parliament granted the power to leave and should some political aspect change, they can vote to take it away. The OP is asking for examples where the current political whims of government has no say in whether the right exists or not. See the part about not counting Scottish Succession because Great Britain's Parliament said they could have the vote. He would count it if Scotland could succeed because Scotland voted and England had no say if the vote could be held .
    – hszmv
    Dec 4 '19 at 16:16
-11

No. If they did, they would not be countries for very long.

The closest thing you can find in modern times is the British "Union of the Crowns" or Union of England and Scotland act of 1603 and the subsequent "Acts of Union" of 1707, which do contain some provisions for Scotland to leave the United Kingdom unilaterally, but with a lot of caveats.

7
  • 7
    I haven't heard about these "provisions for Scotland to leave the United Kingdom unilaterally," nor have I noticed them when I read the Acts of Union (fairly superficially, it must be said). Can you elaborate?
    – phoog
    Dec 3 '19 at 0:55
  • 8
    >would not be countries for very long Why? Not everyone wants to run their own little country and government, there are certainly economies of scale in being bigger. And fragmentation also results in reduced leverage in negotiations with other countries. Barring deep antipathy between different regions (not just different political parties), secession is far from a given. Dec 3 '19 at 3:27
  • 1
    Most of the major UK parties have ruled out a second referendum on Scottish independence in the lead up to the December 2019 general election. So it seems that without Westminster's agreement, Scotland cannot become independent.
    – CJ Dennis
    Dec 3 '19 at 3:31
  • 4
    Please try to add references to support your answer.
    – JJJ
    Dec 3 '19 at 12:20
  • 1
    They can, with or without Westminster's approval. Obviously it would be a much easier and smoother transition with their approval, but it's not strictly required. Dec 4 '19 at 9:09

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