Montenegro. If the polls are right, 55.3% of the votes in the referendum today were for independence. With 85% turnout this would mean that both of the EU requirements for a “valid” outcome (50% turnout, 55% majority) are met.
But independence? Let’s say it was a vote on identity and legitimacy, rather than independence.
The country has 600,000 inhabitants. Opponents of independence argue that, economically or politically, there is no way in which it will function independently. This is of course true, although it is equally true for almost any much larger country – so this argument does not necessarily hold.
Many proponents of independence seem to think that an independent Montenegro will more easily be accepted as an EU member than the current union with Serbia. This argument only holds if the prospect of Montenegro splitting off does not lead to civic unrest or worse, after all about a third of the inhabitants identify themselves as “Serb” rather than “Montenegrin”. A violent outcome is however not expected by most observers, thanks not least to the fall of the Milosevic regime in Belgrade and the normalisation that has taken place there since.
In this sense, a non-violent outcome sort of defeats the pro-independence argument that an early EU membership is more likely without Serbia than with it. The EU has also become less keen on taking in new members, and will certainly hesitate to accept Montenegro as a member without at the same time agreeing on a long-term settlement for Serbia. Most likely, any agreement on Montenegrin accession to the EU would come with an agreement on Serbian accession a few years later – or not at all.
Still, it may be wrong to conclude that this whole independence episode is all about becoming an EU member a few years earlier. Identity and legitimacy have become determining factors in elections all over Europe, as voters feel increasingly uncomfortable with the speed at which the world around them is perceived to be changing. As a result they rally against any outside influence that symbolises this change: globalisation in France, immigration in the Netherlands, Denmark and (perhaps now) Britain, the EU in (again) France and the Netherlands, gays and foreign investors in Poland.
With this in mind, regionalists could argue that rallying around local independence movements is not the worst way in which electorates can deal with globalisation fears, especially if seperation from the larger state is accompanied with an opening up to the rest of the world. The result in this case is a government that is more legitimate because people identify with it more easily, and which is, as a result, more effective when it comes to tackling the problems posed by globalisation on their behalf.
This could be the positive outcome of today’s vote in Montenegro.