In a democracy, you don’t have to like the choices that people make. But, within reasonable bounds, you have to respect them. It’s better than chopping each others’ heads off, which was the previous system.
What are nations? They are notions. They are convenient and useful fictions, lines drawn based on the results of countless wars and treaties and geographic features. National borders are not sent down by god. Some of them make good sense, and many of them make no sense, and have led to new wars of their own. Changing them is a hassle, it’s true, and shouldn’t be undertaken lightly, if only because the entire world then has to buy new fucking maps. But on balance, it doesn’t matter much at all to the world at large if one part of a nation wants to break off and form its own nation. It always seems to matter to the existing government of the nation in question. They feel that if part of their country declares independence they will suffer a “loss.” On a human scale, this is an illusion. The people in the original nation will still have their nation, and the people in the new nation, who want their own nation, will have that. Everyone can go about their business in peace.
Who is anyone to tell an autonomous group of people, who hold a fair and proper democratic vote of all citizens, and who are acting for rational reasons, and who are not aiming to oppressing a portion of their population or deprive anyone of their human rights, that they cannot declare themselves an independent nation? What divine right of kings gives the leaders of a nation the moral standing to declare that a well-considered request for independence should be illegal? We can quibble over technical concerns—the minimum population size necessary, the voting procedures, the exact timeline and process of secession—but on the larger point, anyone who claims to embrace the ideals of democracy must concede that a Declaration of Independence should be respected as an act of free people exercising their right of self-determination.
It is funny, in a way, that the world’s existing ruling governmental institutions are inherently opposed to such independence votes, given the fact that historically such actions have happened via awful wars, and one would think that independence declared via the ballot box would be viewed as a step in the right direction. Instead, attempts to form new nations are almost always seen as threats to the established order, quashed internally and discouraged as well by the international community, which is interested only in security and trade and therefore will usually wait to see how things all turn out before backing any sides. The government of Spain, shamefully, tried to violently repress this weekend’s independence vote in Catalonia with battalions of riot police. Still, Catalonia overwhelmingly voted for independence. This decision by its citizens was not a passing fancy. It was decades in the making. And democracy and fairness demand that it be respected, in the same way that the Kurds of Iraq should be granted their independence after an equally overwhelming vote. Filter out all the technicalities, and the only reasons for opposing these requests for independence once they have been legitimately made is a lust for power by existing national leaders. An understandable emotion, and the motivator of most great historic events, but not something that morality and democracy are obligated to defer to.
I tend to think that the arrow of history and progress runs away from these small independence movements and towards more unity, more connection, and ultimately more global government. But that is a hope for the long run. It does not supersede the obligation to adhere to our stated belief in democracy.
I tend to think that smaller nations place themselves at gross economic and political disadvantage, and that ultimately citizens are better off taking a portion of power in larger states (assuming those states are willing to share power, which is certainly not always the case). I tend to think that a more just world will result from a world more attuned to global perspective and global needs and that we should therefore be working on unifying, not atomizing, our governments. But guess what? I am not Catalan. I am not Kurdish. I don’t get a vote. Nor should I. Nor should the leaders of the nations from which these people feel a pressing need to separate themselves. Self-determination, while respecting the human rights of others, must be honored. Democracy, within the bounds of rationality and justice, must be upheld. Independence is a right. When people have asked for it with all due deliberation, we should grant it to them. This is an improvement on waging a war to get us to the very same place.