Pro-independent movements in Catalonia, with the support of the nationalist regional government, are trying to organize an illegal independence referendum in Catalonia for this Sunday, November 9th. Most democracies do not accept in their constitutions this kind of referendums, although some constitutions, such as the Spanish one, can be reformed in all its content, if there is a large majority that agrees to do so. In spite of this, the pro-independence groups try to go ahead with the referendum, although there is no register of voters, no representatives of all political parties in the count, no neutrality of the regional public media, no commonly agreed referendum question, no commonly agreed nothing. Independence referendums have problems, especially that they artificially promote polarization, in societies where a federal solution would achieve a very high consensus. Referendums with three options are a potential solution, but they are not free of problems. Most democratic nations, especially those that are involved in the European project and in the Eurozone, do not contemplate the secession hypothesis, although their constitutions can be reformed. Catalonia belongs to a highly decentralized member-state of the European Union. We should try to improve democracy and federalism in that context. Manipulating democracy to achieve independence runs into all sorts of commitment problems, as I argued in the LSE blog some weeks ago: "Catalonia should find a better way than a secession referendum to decide about its future constitutional status, in a world of overlapping and shared sovereignties where the nation-state is becoming obsolete. If and only if, over an extended period of time, a very large and stable majority shows an unambiguous support for a detailed “independent” constitutional project within a clear international framework, then some democratic procedure accepted by all relevant actors should be established to peacefully negotiate and finally take a final decision about it. These conditions clearly do not apply today.
Most internationally recognised legal scholars and political
scientists believe that the right to secede should be restricted to
extreme cases. Accordingly, secession referendums are the exception in
developed democratic countries, especially in the context of the
European Union and the Eurozone, which are in a complex process of increasing political integration and redistribution of sovereignty.
There are three commitment problems, well-known to social scientists,
associated to the unrestricted use of a referendum of independence in
1) Federal governments should not be too powerful, and focus on the
creation of the legal and regulatory frameworks for markets to operate
efficiently (including a strong currency and clear borders), and commit
both not to expropriate prívate investments and not to interfere with
federal units, according to the theory of market preserving federalism
due to Weingast and his co-authors.
2) Potential majorities or elites in federal units should commit
not to cheat opportunistically on the specific investments made by
large minorities assuming the permanence of some federal institutions:
educational degrees, retirement benefits for federal civil servants,
language skills, factor mobility, currency…
3) The governments of federal units should commit not to use
their resources to promote the partition of the federal state.
Otherwise potentially federal states will be reluctant in the future to
decentralise in contexts where it would be desirable to do so. When
federal units are relatively rich, there should be a mutual commitment
for the units to fairly, boundedly and transparently contribute to the
common resources and for the federation to preserve self-government and
the participation of the federal units in shared decision-making.
Unless these commitments are respected, societies may fail to build
the stable federal systems that are necessary in our increasingly
integrated economies. To preserve commitments, democratic societies
build institutions that constrain the unrestricted use of majority rule.
That is why we have constitutions, international treaties and courts of
justice. To the extent that, as I believe,
it is desirable that both Spain and the EU become better federations,
the use of a unilateral independence referendum as a decision mechanism
would jeopardise this objective. It would also trigger internal and
external cascade effects that would make it impossible to focus the
energies on a more integrated and democratic Europe.
Spanish and Catalan leaders should instead build on our common values
to submit to the final decision of the electorate an agreement on a
shared institutional architecture that can be legal and stable in the
European context, and give satisfaction to historical grievances."