Thursday, October 12, 2017
A legal self-determination referendum is not a good idea either
It is a contradiction that many, but not all, well-meaning commentators on the Catalan issue advocate for dialogue and reforms (in a federalist direction) and also advocate for a legal and agreed self-determination referendum, "like the Scottish one." It sounds nice, but it is not. A referendum like the Scottish one does nothing to promote a dialogue that favours federalist reforms. Actually, the federalist option was not even in the ballot in the Scottish 2014 referendum. Most democracies in the world, that unlike the British do have a written Constitution (except Ethiopia, Liechstenstein and Saint Kitts and Nevis) either do not allow or explicitly prohibit a self-determination referendum of part of the country. That is, the best democracies in the world, like France, Germany, the USA, etc., would never allow this in their countries.The United Nations only approves of them for colonies or countries with human rights violations. The Council of Europe argues that any referendum about sovereignty must take place under full compliance with the constitution when this is democratic. The Spanish constitution does not allow it, but it could be changed, which takes time and convincing many people like me that are unconvinced. Some people, including the Catalan president and leader of the independence movement, argue that such a legal and agreed referendum should take place because the majority (of Catalans) want it. Probably the majority, which by the way does not favor independence (a myth demolished in an article in the Washington Post) compares this option with the reference point of a regional government trying to organize a vote out of the democratic rule of law. But to do something just because it is consistent with something people say they want when asked is not a good justification in a mature democratic society with high institutional quality, with checks and balances, and honest leadership. A self-determination referendum is what has plunged the UK into political chaos and economic uncertainty, but it is what parties like the Front National in France or the Northern League in Italy want to do once in power, either to leave the EU or to seggregate a part of their country to escape solidarity mechanisms. A referendum is also the preferred tool of Wilders, Orban, Erdogan and Putin. In some historical junctures they can be useful if they can unite all those in favor of peace and democracy, like in Spain in 1978, in Chile in 1988 and in Northern Ireland in 1997. But in the hands of leaders who want to play games with the rule of law, it is a tool that does little to preserve reasoned debate and the expression of political preferences in a way that fits with the collective will of neighbours and people with whom sovereignty is shared, in this case both in Spain and in Europe. A self-determination referendum is an instrument to institutionalize conflict, and conflict favours nationalism, as argued by the article in the Washington Post. Doing well a bad thing is worse than doing it badly.