Author Interview: Between Democracy and Law: The Amorality of Secession


Carlos Closa, Costanza Margiotta & Giuseppe Martinico

Carlos Closa, Costanza Margiotta and Giuseppe Martinico tell us about their new book Between Democracy and Law: The Amorality of Secession.

Tell us a little bit about the book

This volume originates from the need to gather different viewpoints on the very sensitive issue of secession. In this sense, this book is very far from suggesting that there must be a univocal approach to this matter. On the contrary, the contributions gathered in this volume respond to a variety of positions. Despite the different approaches taken by the contributors, the connecting thread linking the chapters of the book is the critical distinction between the “democratic theory of secession” and the “theory of democratic secession”. In fact, after approaching the theoretical nexus democracy-secession both from a legal and political theory perspective, the book examines the instruments that the theory of democratic secession invokes in order to justify secession. This distinction is key to understanding the new wave of secessionism. This volume purports to explore the legal and political issues triggered by the new wave of secessionism. More specifically, those issues concern the interplay between notions of democracy (and democratic ends and means) and law (and the rule of law and constitutionalism). Against this background, the “amorality of secession” is not a thought-provoking title. It rather refers to the approach chosen for this collective volume. According to the Collins dictionary “amoral is often wrongly used where immoral is meant. Immoral is properly used to talk about the breaking of moral rules, amoral about people who have no moral code or about places or situations where moral considerations do not apply”.  Building upon the second meaning of amoral, which refers to a situation (a secessionist process) where moral considerations do not apply, we avoid entering the terrain of the moral foundations of, or justifications for, secession.

What inspired you to take up this project?

It is difficult to say. Of course, a crucial role was played by the Catalan process and the referendum on Brexit, which, however, represented just the latest links of a longer chain. In both events, the references to democracy were constant and became a sort of mantra. In order to deal with these phenomena, the editors of the volume organized (with the kind help of Deirdre Curtin) a workshop at the European University Institute, Florence, in March 2018. The event was made possible thanks to the financial support of the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies, the DIRPOLIS (“Law, Politics and Development”) Institute of the Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna, Pisa. This volume is also part of the Jean Monnet Module “Eur. Publ. IUS” (“European Public Law”) generously funded by the European Union.

Whose work was influential on you throughout the course of the project?

We have deeply engaged with all theories of the right to secede, but specifically the democratic theory of secession or plebiscitary theory (Christopher Wellman, Daniel Philpott, Harry Beran etc.). Each of us had already worked and published on secession from different perspectives (political science, legal theory, comparative constitutional law). The work of Allen Buchanan has been fundamental for all of us, and the three of us (in different moments) had worked on John Caldwell Calhoun (1782-1850) and his constitutional approach to secession.

What challenges did you face in writing the book?

It was not easy to gather and assemble this collection but, above all, we tried to strike a balance between the need to preserve coherence throughout the book and to preserve the plurality of views that a sensitive issue like this presents. That was the main challenge.

What do you hope to see as the book’s contribution to academic discourse and to constitutional or public law more broadly?

This interdisciplinary book does not deal with the subject of the morality or immorality of secession, trying to go beyond the traditional approach that has characterised this field. Our idea implies that an account of the morality of secession is interesting for sure, yet not necessary in order to take secession seriously from a legal and political point of view. This does not imply confining morality to a sort of pre-legal and pre-political sphere or considering moral claims irrelevant, however. Simply, we try to go beyond this debate about the moral justification of secession and in this sense we assume that there might be margin for an amoral (i.e. non-moral) approach. In other words, we do not put the motivations behind secession into question and do not deny that the reasons provided by secessionist movements might be well grounded in some cases. 

What’s next?

We have many projects. Carlos is working on a book on the Venice Commission with Kaarlo Tuori. Costanza is finishing a monograph on “Codification and fragmentation of public international law: the role of interpretation” from a legal theory perspective, while Giuseppe is finalising a monograph (under contract with Cambridge University Press) on the constitutional counter-narratives advanced by populists with a particular focus on the European experience.