Nation states are a thing of stability for many: something that’s existed for decades, even centuries, and there are no way maps change. However, the current world map is fairly young, as for example South Sudan became independent in 2011. There’ll certainly be changes to that world map in the future since history has been full of just that.
In this article, I’ll focus on areas around the world where national borders may be redrawn or erased during the 2020s. So far, these are theoretical changes but I’d argue keeping your eyes on them is worth your while. They involve births of new nations through both independence referenda and unification of existing states.
When it comes to creating new countries, a referendum is a popular method; when a nation holds an independence referendum, it’s usually done because one group believes that there’s no adequate representation or protection under the current rule. One recent independence referendum that got a lot of attention was that of Scotland in 2014. Back then, the Scottish people chose not to become independent, but the Brexit referendum has fuelled a desire for a second vote on the matter, as Scotland was a stronghold of the “Remain” campaign. So far, the London government hasn’t given any official answer on the planned second referendum.
Other notable independence referenda around the world stem from decolonisation. Already in 2018, New Caledonia, a special collectivity of France, voted on whether to become independent. Though the majority (56.4%) voted for staying a part of France, they didn’t win by a landslide and the central government has agreed on three referenda (2018, 2020 and 2022) and if the pro-independence camp wins even one, France has promised to respect the result.
The Pacific area is facing at least two other independence referenda. The first one takes place in Bougainville on November 23rd, 2019, where the people’s choice is independence from Papua New Guinea (PNG) or greater autonomy. However, it’s unclear how more autonomy can be granted, since Bougainville already has its own minister in PNG’s cabinet. Independence is seen as a way to settle disputes over who should control Bougainville’s mining profits. Moreover, the people of Bougainville are culturally closer to the Solomon Islands than the rest of PNG. The Bougainville referendum is non-binding, so even if the pro-independence side wins, the government in Port Moresby can simply ignore the result. The other Oceanian independence referendum is that of Chuuk on March 3rd, 2020. At the moment, it’s a state in the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), which itself is in free association with the USA. Chuuk is the biggest state population-wise and second biggest area-wise, so it’d be a loss to the FSM. The voters will probably be asked a simple yes or no question on independence but its effects are highly debated: would the free association with the USA continue and does the constitution of Micronesia allow secession?
Greenland is also planning independence from Denmark but so far a set date for a referendum hasn’t been agreed. Greenlandic nationalists have, however, proposed that the nation should be independent by 2021, which would mark 300 years of Danish rule. Since 2009, Greenland has had home rule, giving it the right to secede through a referendum. The Danish government has implied they’ll help in the independence process but their annual grand (equalling around 25% of Greenland’s GDP) would end.
Both examples presented here could be considered reunification as the countries in question had been united less than a century ago. Firstly, there’s a potential Belarus-Russia unification. Belarus is a young country, first becoming independent in 1991 after the fall of the USSR. Ever since Belarussian-Russian relations have deepened and steps towards unification have been taken since 1996. In early 2019, President Alexander Lukashenko announced that the two countries are ready to unite.
Korean unification has become more likely than ever in 2010’s. The relations between North Korea and its traditional enemies, South Korea and the USA, have begun to improve. The reunification of the two Koreas will be a long process as they couldn’t be more different. South Korean president Moon Jae-in has advocated a peaceful reunification with small steps: reopening Kaesong industrial park, aiming to be the first South Korean president to visit Pyongyang and in August 2019 pledging that the peninsula would be unified by the year 2045. Of all the potential border changes mentioned here, Korean unification is the most ambitious, and if successful, the greatest peace process of the century.
To sum up
Whatever the case with these potential new countries, through independence or merging, they still need recognition from the rest of the world to be fully engaged at e.g. the United Nations. When it comes to the recognition, a legitimate claim to the change is the key: a peaceful and fair referendum or negotiations instead of annexation and conquest.
Based on the sheer amount of potential changes on the world map, it’s safe to assume that at least one of them will come to fruition. Whether or not a new country comes to be, it’ll make the people there question their basic assumptions. As liberals we should be open for democratisation, cooperation and peaceful co-existence and not be scared of it: we’re more connected than ever and thus physical borders should begin to turn into bridges.
Viljami Kaskiluoto studies Scandinavian linguistics at Tampere University. He’s a member in Svensk Ungdom. Viljami’s interests include language policies and the relationship between societies and languages in general. Twitter: @kaskiluoto, Facebook: @ViljamiRKP