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Article IV, Section 3 of the United States Constitution states that states cannot secede from the U.S. through legal means.

However, some other countries allow legal secession. Why do some countries have rules in their constitutions that allow states to secede from the country through legal means? Is there any advantage in allowing such a thing?

Some examples of countries which have such provisions are (from comments):

  • Northern Ireland has the ability to leave (after a referendum in both it and Ireland) the UK and join Ireland.
  • The French Constitution provides for overseas territories to change their status by referendum.
  • The UK has no written constitution, but many of its former territories have become independent (or in at least two cases been ceded to another state).
  • The Saarland was transferred from France to Germany after a plebiscite.
  • Niue and the Cook Islands are in free association with New Zealand and can terminate or alter this should they wish.
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    Article 4, section 3 gives the method by which states may be admitted. It doesn't say anything secession.
    – James K
    Jun 27 '21 at 4:20
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    Can you give an example of a country with a secession clause in its constitution?
    – Philipp
    Jun 27 '21 at 7:35
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    A lot of these examples just wouldn't be "secession" as generally understood. The Saarland for example was a protectorate and not part of France proper, the British Empire was mostly colonies and dominions rather than states proper, etc. Jun 29 '21 at 1:21
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    @Sayaman - since "Article IV, Section 3 of the United States Constitution" doesn't preclude legal secession, can you provide another source? If not, perhaps just remove the first paragraph since it detracts from an otherwise worthwhile question. Jun 29 '21 at 17:17
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Avoidance of conflict.

By allowing for a constitutional method for a region to leave a union, one avoids extraconstitutional methods: civil war.

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    Well, yes that is my point. By allowing Greenland a constitutional method for independence "when the time is right" and maintaining debate, Denmark has avoided civil war. If everybody assumed that independence would never be granted peacefully, then there may be a stratum in Greenlandic society that would try to achieve independence by other means.
    – James K
    Jun 27 '21 at 7:36
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    I doubt a civil war over Greenland is imminent even without a constitutional provision for secession.
    – chepner
    Jun 27 '21 at 18:03
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    @chepner It's probably not imminent, but if some group really wanted independence for Greenland, and there was truly no constitutional path to secession, where do you think things might go?
    – Tashus
    Jun 27 '21 at 21:42
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    @Tashus: A constitutional amendment?
    – Vikki
    Jun 28 '21 at 1:30
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    There are forms of conflict significantly short of civil war that governments such as Denmark may also seek to avoid, such as street protests, political pressure, electoral losses, boycotts, and bad publicity or press coverage. For places where the issue of secession is controversial (such as Scotland or Catalonia), governments have more tolerance for these forms of conflict than in places where it is not.
    – James_pic
    Jun 28 '21 at 12:08
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The question implicitly assumes that a territory seceding from a country must be a loss for the country, and therefore that a country should avoid any risk of this happening.

This would be true from the point of view of a world seen as a zero-sum game of wealth and power, but this is a fallacy from the point of view of a world which tends towards freedom and democracy. The general principle in the latter view is that humankind as a whole is better off if people are free to choose what they want rather than if they are dominated by rules that they can't change, at least not within the bounds of legal and peaceful means. The assumption is that people being free leads to a better environment across the board: more peaceful societies, nurturing environment for better and faster social and technological progress, more cooperation and solidarity within and between communities, etc. It's important to realize that it's not because freedom to secede exists that it's going to be used. In turn this means that the society in a country allowing secession is willfully staying together.

To some extent allowing a territory to secede is comparable to laws allowing divorce. There is no direct "advantage" in a divorce, but it's preferable to acknowledge that an existing arrangement is not appropriate anymore and let the parties go their own way, rather than forcing them to stay together with all the resentment, anger and potential violence that this could lead to.

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    It is always a loss for the population of both sides of the secession. If, say, the island of Kyushu seceded from Japan, a person living in Hokkaido would automatically loose a lot of rights regarding the "lost" island; usually without having a say in the matter. The same would apply to people in Kyushu, mind you, but those at least would presumably get to vote or something. Jun 27 '21 at 16:29
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    @Diego Sánchez: Not necessarily so. The two could be politically different, while still maintaining open travel and economy. E.g. the European Union, or (until recent years) the US and Canada.
    – jamesqf
    Jun 27 '21 at 16:47
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    @DiegoSánchez in the short term it's likely that secession is not an advantage for the country, but in the long term it could be: if a significant proportion of the population is unhappy, this would at least hinder progress in the society in general, possibly cause various political obstacles to making new laws, maybe even require more army/police resources to prevent or fight violent insurrection, etc. In the long term, maintaining a part of the population in the country against their will is a huge disadvantage. Letting them secede is comparatively a better option.
    – Erwan
    Jun 27 '21 at 17:43
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    @DiegoSánchez I disagree: a loss in the short term is not necessarily a loss in the long term. For example the two separated populations may end up with different sets of rights which better correspond to what they want as a society, whereas said rights would have been impossible to obtain without separation.
    – Erwan
    Jun 27 '21 at 19:00
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    Interesting conversation but I'm not sure what its application is to the question. If you don't have the right to secede then you have fewer rights than someone who does. As with any right, you need not exercise that right. And if you have a legal avenue to secession, how could you morally secede through other means? And while you could say that secession always implies a loss of rights for everyone, that outcome is amplified when violence is the tool of separation.
    – Mockman
    Jun 27 '21 at 19:47
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In order to get them in in the first place.

Independent states may be more willing to enter the union if they have a way back. As with any decision, not all effects are predictable.

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In some cases, it can provide another layer of checks and balances on the functioning of the state as a whole. In 2003, the constitution of Liechtenstein was reformed by a 'Princely Initiative' proposed by Prince Hans-Adam II and accepted in a nationwide referendum. The changes granted the Prince new powers, including the right to dismiss the government (Article 48) and to veto legislation (Article 65). However, these powers can be overridden by the population by holding a referendum.

In addition, the 2003 reform included a provision for individual municipalities to secede from the union if such action is supported by a majority of their population (Article 4), ensuring that the municipalities continue to be governed by consent, and reinforcing the state's commitment to federalism.

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    On the either hand, what is a municipality that secedes from Lichtenstein supposed to do? It's not like we're talking about NYC or London here. Jun 27 '21 at 14:45
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    @AzorAhai-him- Well that's true, a new country of Planken with its population of ~500 seems unlikely. It could, however, join Austria or Switzerland.
    – CDJB
    Jun 27 '21 at 14:48
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    @AzorAhai-him- Because Liechtenstein is already tightly integrated with Switzerland, most likely the municipality would join Switzerland or more exactly it would join a Swiss canton (which would make it part of Switzerland), probably St. Gallen or Chur. Maybe they would like the advantages of EU membership, then they would probably join Austria because tiny microstates currently can't easily join the EU. But tiny independent microstates can also get away with a lot of stuff so maybe they would prefer that.
    – Nobody
    Jun 27 '21 at 17:51
  • @nobody Still, without a guarantee to join either Switzerland or Austria I feel like this provision is kinda pointless Jun 27 '21 at 20:09
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    @AzorAhai-him-: The entire population of Liechtenstein is less than 40k, so Liechtensteiners probably don't think it's essential to live in a country as big as NYC or London. (Also, one could conceive of multiple municipalities seceding together, if all agreed. For example, Vaduz and Schaan are neighbors, and together represent over one-quarter of the country.)
    – ruakh
    Jun 29 '21 at 5:24

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