Spain: the danger of the referendum

Holding a referendum without an agreement in place is a bad idea, argues Matt Qvortrup in El País.
President of the Catalonian Government, Carles Puigdemont Catalonia Referendum
President of the Catalonian Government, Carles Puigdemont

Carles Puigdemont, the president of the Catalonian Government, will announce the date and exact question of a referendum on the independence of Catalonia in the next few days.

He claims to be speaking ‘in the name of the people. A powerful statement, but it’s not that simple.’

Referenda can certainly be a good thing. They can give the ‘stamp of approval to agreements reached by the political elites,’ like in the Basque Country and Andalucía in the 80s.

But a referendum should come ‘at the end of the process, so that an agreement is cemented,’ and not without a previous agreement between the two opposing parties. Without this, referenda can be unproductive and are often dangerous.

In fact, as demonstrated in Referendums and Ethnic Conflict, there is a statistical correlation between war and referenda organised before a fixed agreement.

For example, in 1973 a vote in Northern Ireland on unification with Ireland only worsened the conflict, and ended in fighting that left over 3000 people dead.

West Belfast, Northern Ireland during the troubles
West Belfast, Northern Ireland during the troubles

And war was ‘tragically predictable’ in Ukraine after the 2014 independence referendum in the so-called Luhansk People’s Republic.

This is not to say that all independence referendums are ‘inadvisable,’ or that Catalonian independence is inacceptable.

The Montenegrin independence referendum in 2006 proved that ‘democratic processes can create new states,’ but the difference is that the vote was preceded by extensive negotiations on the matter between Montenegro and Serbia.

And while the 1973 referendum in Northern Ireland led to ‘the Troubles,’ the referendum on the Good Friday Agreement – which followed on from negotiations – put an end to the conflict.

‘Resolving the differences between Barcelona and Madrid will require a predisposition to compromise;’ unofficial plebiscites won’t resolve anything.

‘Barcelona and Madrid should heed the lessons of history,’ and not hold a referendum without some kind of previous agreement in place beforehand.

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