The Divide Over Independence: Explaining Preferences for Secession in an Advanced Open Economy

The forthcoming article “The Divide Over Independence: Explaining Preferences for Secession in an Advanced Open Economy” by Maria Jose Hierro and Didac Queralt is summarized by the author(s) below. 

The number of states facing self-determination claims has increased steadily since 1960. Self-determination, common in the postcolonial world, regained momentum after the breakup of the USSR. In recent decades, referenda on independence have also reached advanced economies. Far from exceptional, demands for self-determination are expected to proliferate because international economic integration reduces the relevance of country size.  

To date, the study of individual-level preferences for secession has largely focused on nonmaterial traits, including identity and language. This contrasts with aggregate analyses of secession demands that emphasize the importance of economic factors. Inspired by the latter approach, we examine here the leverage of material considerations in forging pro-secession preferences. We claim that exposure to anticipated trade, insurance, and fiscal shocks structure support for (and opposition to) independenceWe test our argument in Catalonia, an advanced economy deeply integrated in international marketsWe draw on an original online survey conducted before the December 2017 regional election, which followed the declaration of independence by the Catalan Parliament and the suspension of autonomy by the Spanish governmentThe election was read by many as a covert referendum on independence.  

Using different instruments of support for independence, we provide robust evidence showing that anticipated trade shocks following secession exert differential effects depending on market specialization. Respondents working in sectors and at firms exporting to the host country disproportionally oppose secessionBy contrast, respondents specializing in foreign markets show no aversion to independence. We offer three nonmutually exclusive explanations for the different effect of domestic and foreign trade relationshipsthe relative size of the host country and foreign markets, anticipated boycott by domestic consumers, and relatively low competitiveness of producers specializing in the domestic economy.  

Exploring material considerations further, we find no systematic relationship between income levels and preference for secession; however, we show that exclusion from welfare strengthens support for independence among the long-term unemployed, a result that sheds light on the upsurge of secession support during the harshest years of the economic crisis, 20082014.  We offer suggestive evidence that the long-term unemployed favored secession not because of reemployability considerations but in expectation of generous social insurance in the new state. 

Our analysis also reveals that support for independence increases with skill levels. We investigate further this result that seemingly challenges the expectations derived from the Heckscher-Ohlin trade model; that is, if secession is followed by (short-term) international economic disintegrationhigh-skilled individuals in capital-intensive economy should oppose secession. Wdismiss an explanation based on anticipated economic returns from independence. Instead, we find that education masks differences in “fiscal knowledge, namely understanding of the institutional design of interterritorial transfers. In a context of autonomy retractionshighly educated individuals show disproportional skepticism about the accommodation of regional demands and the fulfillment of central government promises.  

Our findings contribute to the literature of secession politics by uncovering individual-level economic drivers of support for and opposition to independence, holding nonmaterial considerations constantThe results speak to ongoing secessionist movements in open economies, including Quebec, Scotland, Flanders, New Caledonia, and arguably, Hong Kong. Likewise, our findings shed light on the connection between grievances derived from autonomy retractions and preference for secession. Provided that high-skill, high-knowledge individuals have disproportional access to and influence over regional political elitessustained autonomy retraction by the central government might leave little room for a negotiated solution.  

About the Author(s): Maria Jose Hierro is Lecturer, Department of Political Science, Yale University and Didac Queralt is Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, Yale University. Their research “The Divide Over Independence: Explaining Preferences for Secession in an Advanced Open Economy” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming article of the American Journal of Political Science. 

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.

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