The birth of a new country is a crazy, exciting time. With all the world explored and all useable land claimed, new nations can only be forged by the merging or collapse of older states. This gives each one an emotional intensity to it rarely seen in world affairs. Look at the birth of South Sudan in 2011, or Kosovo in 2008, or the reunification of Germany in 1990. Such moments are rare and should be cherished.
Just because they are rare, though, doesn’t mean they never happen. Over the next decade or so, a good number of regions may get the chance to go their own way and forge new states. While we can’t say any of the following will definitely happen, here are ten of the most likely new countries to emerge by 2026.
10. Independent Scotland
In 2014, Scottish voters came within a hair’s breadth of choosing to split Scotland from the UK, creating a new state. Although over 55% of Scots ultimately elected to stay within the union, the forces of nationalism had been unleashed. In the 2015 UK general election, the Scottish National Party (SNP) took nearly every seat in Scotland, becoming the 3rd largest party in the union. Ever since, the threat of a second referendum has loomed large.
The biggest trigger for Scottish independence is the UK’s recent vote to leave the EU. Since Britain decided to quit, and given Scotland’s desire to stay in the EU, the SNP have promised another referendum within two years. This makes Scotland the most likely new country of the next decade.
So what would an independent Scotland look like? That all depends on oil prices. Scotland’s largest resource would be north sea oil. If prices stabilize, it could make the new nation very wealthy, allowing the SNP to model it on liberal Scandinavian states. If they keep falling, independent Scotland could find itself as cash-strapped as Russia or Greece.
9. Independent London
Scotland isn’t the only part of the UK analysts think might have a chance of splitting in the future. Welcome to London, the UK capital and one of the most dynamic cities on Earth.
With a population of over eight million (more than Norway or Denmark) and a land area far in excess of city-states like Singapore, London is already culturally and economically detached from the nation around it. Nearly 40% of residents are immigrants. Arts and culture are anchored here. The city provides nearly a quarter of the UK’s entire GDP. The London Assembly has devolved powers to rival Wales’. The question is not whether London would be a viable microstate, but whether the UK could take it leaving.
Some politicians within the UK’s main parties are already agitating for an independent London, and their arguments are relatively strong. The city-state of London would benefit by no longer needing to send money to the rest of the UK. The rest of the UK would benefit by ending London’s political dominance. Likely, the nation of London would be like Singapore with a social conscience – a powerful financial center dominated by left-ish politics.
The aftermath of WWI saw plenty of winners and losers. Some of the biggest losers of all were the Kurds. An ethnic group from the Middle East, they found their homeland split between Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. Since then, they’ve been fighting for an independent Kurdish state, leading to a civil war in Turkey and attempted genocide against the Kurds in Iraq. Until recently, it looked like the Kurdish struggle was doomed to never end.
Then came the Syrian civil war and the rise of ISIS. With Kurds acting as the US’s greatest allies in the region, many are now talking openly of Kurdish statehood. Kurdish forces have seized territory ISIS took from Iraq and refused to hand it back to the Iraqis. Large swathes of Syria are under Kurdish control. The leader of Iraqi Kurdistan has said world leaders need to accept his people are building a state. In the current power vacuum of northeast Syria and north Iraq, Kurds already have de facto independence.
There are still great challenges to creating a unified Kurdistan. Iraqi Kurds are allied with Turkey, whom Syrian Kurds have declared an enemy. The various Kurdish groups speak different languages. Yet if the dust in the Middle East settles on a defeated ISIS, a weak and exhausted Assad and a fragmented Iraq, a Kurdish state might become an inevitability.
Catalonia is Spain’s answer to Scotland and London, all rolled into one restive province. Home to Barcelona, and the economic engine of Spain, Catalonia is diverse, wealthy, and in possession of its own distinct language (Catalan). It’s also fiercely independent: in 2014, a non-binding referendum had over 80% of Catalans vote to split from Spain. Since early 2016, the region has been headed by a government of avowed nationalists (although this government actually collapsed during a budget wrangle while we were writing this).
After Scotland, Catalonia is probably the most likely new state to emerge in the next few years. The region has set out its own ambitious plan for independence, which could see it break from Spain as early as 2017. While many think this is an unrealistic date, the chances of an eventual split are astronomically high. Madrid and Barcelona have been on a collision course for years, and a dampening of secession spirit looks unlikely. Since a Catalan state would be relatively wealthy and have a good industrial base, the question may not be ‘if’ so much as ‘when.’
Somaliland is already a state. One of three entities making up modern day Somalia (the others are Puntland and Somalia itself), it declared independence from Somalia way, way back in 1991. In the 25 years since, it has run free elections, kept at peace, created state infrastructure (including its own currency), and developed economically, even as Somalia disintegrated and Puntland became a den of pirates and jihadists. Yet to date, not a single country has ever recognized its existence.
Despite this, Somaliland has a strong claim to statehood. It does business with the US, EU, UN and Arab League. It has its own army and controls its borders. It was an independent state once before: in 1960, it spent five days as a nation before voluntarily entering into a union with Italian Somaliland (modern-day Somalia). The African Union admitted in 2005 that Somaliland should therefore be able to leave a union it voluntarily joined.
Yet a true state of Somaliland depends on peace coming to Somalia. Since a breakaway state could reignite tensions in the country, no observers are willing to take on the Somaliland cause until peace comes to Mogadishu. As the civil war has been running since 1991, it could be many years yet before Somaliland gets the recognition it deserves.
5. The United States of Europe
The treaty that created the modern EU called for an ‘ever closer union.’ For many on the continent, this has been interpreted to mean building ‘a United States of Europe’ with a common government, army, and currency. Although the financial crisis, Greek recession, and refugee crisis have temporarily made such plans unpopular, the project is still on track. Many have argued that it would solve all of the EU’s current problems.
The call for a ‘United States of Europe’ was first issued by none other than Winston Churchill. It was 1946, and Churchill could see no other way to stop Europe from imploding under the weight of another bruising war. Since then, many have repeated his call. Most recently, the vice president of the European Commission called for an 18-nation superstate made up of countries already using the Euro, with the remaining 10 nations of the EU (including the UK) remaining close allies.
With nationalism currently on the rise in Europe, the idea of an EU superstate has been placed on the back burner. But many experts have warned that the EU simply can’t continue to function in its current form. Either closer integration is needed, or a return to the days when the EU was merely a trading bloc. Given how entwined many of mainland Europe’s economies now are, sensible money would be on the ascension of the EU to full-blown nationhood before 2030.
4. The Shetlands and Orkney
With a combined population of less than 70,000, the far-flung Scottish islands of The Shetlands, Orkney, and the Outer Hebrides might seem like the last places on Earth to agitate for statehood. But with the threat of Scotland seceding from the UK, plans have been drawn up to potentially create three new microstates, or one federated collection of island states.
The reasons for this are both practical and historic. For half a millennia, the Shetlands and Orkney were under Norse rule, and many islanders still feel more connection to Scandinavia than Scotland. They tend to be much more pro-UK than Scots, and voted heavily to stay in the union during the Scottish referendum. In the event that Scotland held a second referendum and broke with the UK, though, Edinburgh would likely lay claim to the islands. At that point, leaders on the Shetlands, Orkney, and Outer Hebrides have indicated they might go fully independent.
It sounds crazy, but it could be economically viable. Shetland and Orkney are both home to vast gas and oil reserves. Even with falling oil prices, their tiny communities (Orkney has a population of just 20,000) could quickly become some of the richest per capita on Earth. Even with a Scottish split from the UK, an independent Shetland or Orkney is not guaranteed, but it would be foolish to write off the possibility.
3. Unified Korea
One is a hyper-capitalist tech-utopia with some of the highest living standards in Asia. The other is an impoverished wasteland ruled by a paranoid dictator with a penchant for illegally detonating nuclear bombs. The idea that South Korea might one day reunify with North Korea seems like a pie-in-the-sky fantasy. Yet it may not be unlikely as you think. Reunification is official government policy in both North and South Korea.
The costs of reunification would be enormous. West Germany took a massive hit in 1990 when it absorbed East Germany, and is still paying for reunification today. And the GDR was a functioning state (albeit an impoverished one). North Korea is like something out of the dark ages. While German reunification has cost around $2.5 trillion over 25 years, South Korea would immediately have to shell out $1 trillion just to stop a reunified Korea from instantly collapsing.
Yet the incentives are still there. The Economist has calculated mining the North’s rare minerals could give South Korea a $12 trillion return over the long term. Then there are the invaluable advantages to not having an angry, nuclear-armed neighbor on your doorstep. As things stand right now, if the North ever collapses – due to revolution or a coup – official policy is for the Koreas to reunite. With a country as unstable as North Korea, that could happen as far away as 2050, or as soon as tomorrow morning.
2. Vojvodina and Republika Srpska
The disintegration of Yugoslavia was one of the most complex break ups of a state in history. Over the course of four bruising wars and one insurrection, the former republic split into seven different states (Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro, Macedonia, and Serbia). Yet the slow death of Yugoslavia may not be over. There are at least two candidates left for independence: Vjvodina in Serbia, and Republika Srpska in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Of these, the Republika Srpska is the more likely to become a state, and also the more likely to spark another Balkan War. At the conclusion of the Bosnian War, Bosnia was divided into Muslim and Croat Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Serb Republika Srpska. Both parts of the nation fundamentally distrust one another. Muslims say the Republika Srpska was built on genocide. Serbs say the Muslims want to place them under Muslim law. In December 2015, the Republika’s nationalist Serb leader, Milorad Dodik, called for independence. A referendum is due to take place in 2018; a breach of the 1995 peace settlement. Respected institutions are worried a vote for secession could easily spark another Bosnian civil war.
Less explosive, Vjvodina in Serbia has been agitating for independence since 2009, to the disgust of Serb nationalists. A multi-ethnic enclave on the Hungarian border, Vjvodina’s residents feel much like other Yugoslavians did under Milosevic’s Serb-dominated state. In other words, they’re ready to split. While no referendums have been called, events could yet put a fire under Vjvodina’s autonomous government. It’s entirely possible we’ll see the number of former Yugoslavia countries rise to nine by 2026.
1. East and West Libya
Libya is in a state of chaos. Ever since Gaddafi was overthrown, the country has veered between extreme visions of what it should be. Militias seized control of large areas. ISIS took over swathes of central territory. Multiple self-declared governments emerged, each claiming to be the legitimate one. Amid all this chaos, East and West Libya have begun to pull apart from one another. Right now, it looks extremely likely that they will split into separate states.
In Tripoli, a UN-backed government has managed to take control of much of the West. In Tobruk, a government loyal to renegade General Khalifa Haftar has got most of the East under control. Both governments claim to speak for Libya. Both have their own infrastructure and Central Banks. Both recently issued their own, rival currencies across the country, fueling fears of a coming split.
At this point, all hopes of the country coming together are likely doomed. Unless the UN-backed government gets some serious Western funding to forestall economic implosion, Libya could easily go down the tubes. Likely, this would lead to the creation of two new states, each facing a massive uphill struggle against terrorism and financial instability. In this case, the birth of a new nation would be less a moment to cherish, and more a geo-political nightmare.