Friday, July 29, 2022

Any appetite for more referendums after Brexit?

The hubris of David Cameron was behind his call of two Independence referendums that signalled the end of his political career: the Scottish Independence referendum in 2014, and the Brexit referendum in 2016. In the first one, the option for Scotland to remain in the UK prevailed by a relatively small margin. In the second, as it is well known, the leavers prevailed, by an even smaller margin.

The two referendums were legal, but unusual and irresponsible. In the first case, because the absence of a written Constitution in the UK allows majorities in Westminster to allow a referendum that may trigger the partition of the country, an option that is almost totally absent in democracies with a written Constitution. That this is legally possible does not mean that the Scotish have the right of self-determination interpreted as the right to secede, because they need the permission of a majority of the UK Parliament. In the second case, the member states of the EU have the possibility to leave the Union, once the member state in question decides to trigger Article 50 of the EU Treaty which allows to start negotiations that finish with a country leaving the club (something that so far has only happenned with Brexit). 

It is today well- known that the Brexit referendum gave the opportunity to demagogues to circulate lies that made possible the narrow victory of the leave option. After the referendum, a Constitutional crisis that lasted for several years consumed three prime ministers, and after 5 years of painful negotiations the UK left the EU institutions, plunging the country in a state of chaos that has little to do with the promises and debates that took place in the referendum campaign.

In Scotland, now the First Minister Sturgeon is calling for a second referendum in 2023 (less than 10 years after the first one), but now politicians in Westminster from the two main parties are very reluctant to accept it, according to The Economist. Strugeon’s answer to this has been to evolve towards a “Catalan strategy,” that is, the strategy of organizing a referendum without the acceptance of London, or even the strategy of giving a “plebiscitarean” interpretation to a regional election. All these strategies failed in Catalonia, ended also in a Constitutional crisis, and sent several politicians to jail (later pardoned) or running away from justice. The Observer’s columnist Andrew Rawnsley has argued that a second referendum in Scotland may be necessary, citing as an example the second referendum in Quebec (1995 after 1980) when the remainers prevailed for the second time but by the narrowest of margins. Rawnsley doesn’t mention the Constitutional crisis that surrounded that referendum, the legal uncertainty and the economic crisis that followed, from which Quebec has not yet recovered. Why would a second referendum in 10 years be necessary? Why not three, four…? After the second referendum in Quebec, they stopped calling referendums like this, not because 2 is a magic number, but because the Constitutional crisis reached such magnitude, that the Canadian Parliamentary majority passed a Clarity Law that makes such referendums mostly unlikely, getting Canada closer to most democracies, where the right to secede is just not accepted in written constitutions, to avoid instability and to promote consensus and dialogue among democratic representatives and communities to solve identity problems.

Meanwhile, The Russian Federation is actively preparing for a pseudo-referendum on the annexation of Ukraine’s occupied territories to the Russian Federation, as they did in Crimea also in 2014. The invaders plan to transfer more than 1,000 Russian experts and volunteers to the region to undermine the internal situation in their favor. They should organize illegal mass meetings, spread agitation in support of a pseudo-referendum and equip election commissions.

Northern Ireland’s Sinn Fein is also planning to call for a reunification referendumin the island, which the Good Friday agreement makes possible, although this agreement was precisely exemplarily approved not by a divisive referendum, but by a referendum that followed a very broad and detailed agreement between all the relevant parties. It would be much better to forget about borders, and to keep an irrelevant “border” between the south and the north, and a community in the north that benefits from co-membership of Ireland and the European Common Market, and the UK (as is the case today). Of course, the solution would be much better if the UK stayed in the Coomon Market as well. But that’s one of the problems of the Brexit referendum: that it collides with the spirit of the Good Friday agreement.

Divisive referendums in advanced democracies are a very bad idea to solve identity problems. They tend to approve long lasting institutions or borders against the wishes of a large part of the population. It is much better to promote a reasoned discussion to reach an imperfect consensus among representatives (potentially followed by a ratification referendum) in a deliberative democracy, as proposed by economist Amartya Sen.

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