Dec 6 2013

On the “right to decide”

By Sonia Sierra and Jose Javier Olivas

800px-Catalunya_is_a_NationAs we have seen with regard to other dimensions of the Euro Crisis, the discussion about the Catalan independence in Spain has also brought to the fore an interesting struggle over the framing of the problem. Probably the most important example of this is the successful introduction in the political and journalistic debate of the “right to decide” as a concept substituting the “right of self-determination” or “right of secession”. The reasons for its great success are easy to grasp: everybody loves to have rights and “deciding” seems a natural characteristic of democracies. In the Catalan public sphere the right to decide has become almost unquestionable; anyone daring to contest this right has been quickly accused of being a poor democrat. According to the supporters of the “right to decide”, this must be exercised by means of a referendum or consultation about “the future of Catalonia”. The problem is that so far this “right to decide” has not been clearly defined and even among the proponents of such a referendum the interpretations of its scope and implications remain very vague. To the extent that the contradictions in what the “right to decide” means have created a fracture in the camp of those supporting the referendum. The Catalan Socialist Party, PSC, has already shown strong discrepancies concerning the organisations of the consultation.

This article dissects this concept and argues that rather than an inalienable right, the “right to decide” is closer to a non-neutral euphemism which involves a coordinated attempt to influence public opinion.

Deciding what?

There are linguistic problems stemming from the expression “right to decide”. “To decide” is a transitive verb so it must necessarily be followed by a direct object to complete its meaning.  However, in the case of the Catalan dret a decidir and Spanish derecho a decidir there is an absolute use of the verb “decide” without identifying the direct object it refers to. While many assume that what is going to be decided upon is whether or not Catalonia will become independent, others invite citizens to have a broader and more imprecise stance on what this pretended “right to decide” aims at providing.

Moreover the “right to decide” has no legal or political equivalent in Spain’s neighboring countries. The direct translation of this term into languages such as English, French or German is too vague or devoid of any particular meaning in the context of politics. When searching online the word-by-word translation of the “right to decide” into these languages most entries refer back to texts produced by Catalan and Spanish institutions or bodies. This seems to confirm the idea that the “right to decide” is far less universal a democratic concept than its supporters in Catalonia want to make us believe.

On the other hand, the right of “self-determination” is a much clearer and more utilised concept in most languages and countries. The ideas that the “right of self-determination” evokes, such as sovereignty and self-government, resonate directly with the claims of the pro-independence movement in Catalonia. Thus, why introducing in the public debate a much more vague concept, “the right to decide”,  when we already had an expression that better captures what we want to talk about, such as the “right of self-determination” (dret d’autodeterminació in Catalan and derecho de autodeterminación in Spanish)? One answer is that the lack of concretion in meaning allows room for everyone to understand whatever they wish.

The emergence of this concept is not spontaneous but part of a well-orchestrated campaign. The “right to decide” became popular in 2003, during the campaign for the so-called “Ibarretxe Plan” which sought a de facto independence of the Basque Country from Spain. The Basque Country and Catalonia were not colonies but prosperous regions in a democratic country. They were not suffering oppression or negative discrimination in Spain. Therefore, claiming their “right to self-determination”, which is normally associated to colonies or oppressed minorities in non-democratic regimes, became problematic. The adoption and promotion of the neologism “right to decide” by the pro-independence camp meant a shift in its strategy reflecting an increasing concern for international recognition. Yet, in 2006 the Plataforma pel Dret a Decidir was created (PDD) with the financial support of the Catalan regional government Generalitat. In 2011, the UNESCO Centre in Catalonia published a report entitled “From the right of self-determination to the right to decide: a possible paradigm shift in the struggle for the rights of stateless nations”. The report was signed by Jaume Lopez Hernádez, who also was one of the founding fathers and president of the PDD.  The document puts forward some “proposals for action” to be followed by Nationalist parties and organizations aimed at detaching “the right to decide”, deemed a sovereignty claim, from that of “self-determination” and more importantly, justify this cause not simply on the principle of independence but on the principle of “democratic radicalism” and a return to the principle of “direct democracy”.

Is it a right?

1245785008137-C_Users_Cristian_Pictures_participacion_ciudadana_noticias_3985The “right to decide” more than a concrete right expresses a particular view on how a political system should operate. It is a claim in defence of a model of “direct democracy” in contrast with that of “representative democracy” currently operating in most western countries. The model of direct democracy, also referred to as “plebiscitary” or “Athenian democracy”, empowers citizens and provides legitimacy to decisions. However its disadvantages in practical terms have marginalised it in favour of a model of representative democracy. Some of the core problems of direct democracy identified by the political science literature emerge in the case of the Catalan “right to decide”. First, the choices offered to citizens would be few and fixed beforehand. Second, the citizens may not be interested or not agree with the options presented. Third, whoever has the power to compose the question has the capacity to shape its outcome. In the case of Catalonia a commission created by some (mainly pro-independence) parties is drafting the question and therefore the doubts about its neutrality remain really high.

Moreover, this vague “right to decide” is not codified or clearly specified in any national or international legal text. Although the notion of “freedom of choice” is inherent to democratic systems, before exercising this particular “right to decide” it would be necessary to define (and agree upon) its nature and scope.

The absence of such “right to decide” or “right of self-determination” in the Spanish legal system (as in most legal systems in the world) has been actually utilised by the Catalan pro-independence supporters to denounce a conflict between “political legitimacy” and “legality”: the “will of a people” against something as prosaic as “the law” and in particular against the Spanish Constitution. Some even referred to this as the “law vs. democracy” dilemma. However this is fundamentally an artificial debate driven by a political goal. It should not be forgotten that it is precisely the rule of law that guarantees most democratic principles, such as the protection of minorities and individual liberties. Recognising some trade-offs between “popular legitimacy” and “legality” is a healthy critical exercise. However, denying the legitimacy of a Constitution and a democratic legal system, such as the Spanish one, for not accommodating a pretended “right” that even its proponents have not managed to define is a dangerous and self-defeating exercise.

Finally, under the current legal framework, a referendum such as the one planned by the supporters of the “right to decide” in Catalonia in 2014 would be illegal or lack legally binding effects. The “right to decide” seems to be turning into the “right to express an opinion on a particular question defined by some political parties”. Despite the problems identified above, such as the imprecise meaning, nature and scope of the pretended “right to decide” and its questionable legality, enormous amounts of political effort and financial resources are being invested in Catalonia in its promotion. The result of this costly process is uncertain, much so because its goals were never clearly defined.

For the sake of transparency and accountability, the Catalan political debate should be again articulated around terms with clear meanings to avoid confusion, misunderstandings and frustration among the citizens. It is probably time to start calling things by their name and substitute the “right to decide” for the “right of secession” or “self-determination”. In fact, now with the renewed popularity of the movement many pro-independence supporters are ready to remove their masks and abandon the euphemisms. As Agustí Colomines, former director of the Catalan nationalist Catdem Foundation (linked to the government party CDC), admits in a video “the right to decide is garbage that we made up. This is the right of self-determination”. In the video one can also see the very influential Carme Forcadell, Chair of pro-independence Assemblea Nacional Catalana, encouraging him and endorsing his statement. This is what the debate is ultimately about.


Dr Sonia Sierra is associate professor in the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, UAB. She holds a PhD in Spanish Philology and MA in Spanish Literature. She is a founding member of the group “Brandenburg Gate“.  Sonia contributes periodically to a newspaper Crónica Global. Follow her on Twitter

Dr Jose Javier Olivas is an LSE Fellow and Associate to the Southern Europe International Affairs Programme of LSE IDEAS. He is also a co-founder and editor of Euro Crisis in the Press. Follow him on Twitter

Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the Euro Crisis in the Press blog, nor of the London School of Economics.

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18 Responses to On the “right to decide”

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  6. Jack Wilburton says:

    @Andy “Are you seriously trying to argue that the wishes of the majority of the Catalan people should be disregarded because the Spanish constitution says so?”

    Well the Spanish constitution does apply in Catalonia, so it’s not that outlandish to suggest it should be applied in practice.

    I personally think there should be a referendum in Catalonia and I’ve said so many times in the past, but as usual you’ve lurched into the usual nonsense whereby anyone who doesn’t support a referendum is automatically deemed anti-democratic.

    As is well known to anyone with even a passing understanding of political science, referendums are a deeply flawed application of democracy. They tend to promote knee-jerk populism and are incredibly divisive (as you’d know very well, given you spend half your time petulantly attacking Unionists for the temerity to have a different opinion to your own).

    In Scotland, we’ll almost certainly vote no, but what’s more troubling is that we now have a deeply divided population. The independence campaign has created an artificial division between a population that was once far more united – in no small part because people like you have decided to wage internet warfare against the other side.

    Referendums are also an extremely poor way of making long-term decisions. That’s why Quebec has held two on this question. It’s why the UK will potentially hold two on being part of the integration project. It’s why Norway has twice held referendums on joining the EU… and so on.

    I support a referendum in Catalonia because I think it’s reached such a point of ill feeling that it’s now unavoidable we’ll have some kind of vote. If there isn’t a referendum, then the alternative (holding an unofficial plebiscite election) will be even worse and create even more division. That doesn’t mean referendums are a good thing for democracy, or that anyone who doesn’t support holding a referendum is anti-democratic. That’s the kind of nonsense UKIP and the Daily Mail come out with on a regular basis and it has no place here, on an academic blog.

    • Andy Ellis says:

      “Well the Spanish constitution does apply in Catalonia, so it’s not that outlandish to suggest it should be applied in practice.”

      It is however outlandish to maintain that applying the constitution of Spain in practice is a defensible position, either morally or politically, in the face of the clearly expressed will of the majority of Catalans in favour of holding a referendum. You may cavil at your position being labelled anti-democratic, but it is difficult to interpret as anything else; if the cap fits, at least have the honesty and the courage to wear it!

      Your understanding of political science does seem (at best) passing, if you can posit that referendums are a “deeply flawed application of democracy”. Anyone is entitled to oppose holding a referendum, whether in Spain, Scotland or anywhere else. What they are NOT entitled to do is to insist the majority of Catalans or Scots accept their “reality” that self-determination is in the gift of Spain or the UK respectively.

      The “knee-jerk populism” scare crops up a lot in unionist attacks on self determination in both cases, and yet… where is the evidence? The type of inclusive, civic, social-democratic nationalism evidenced in both Scotland and Catalonia gives the lie to such blatant scaremongering. Having a different opinion is fine; I’m well used to debating opponents if independence, many of whom are principled honest folk; just don’t try to pretend that supporting the right of the Spanish state to block Catalan self determination in perpetuity is anything other and deeply regressive and profoundly anti-democratic.

      You may of course be right; it is possible Scotland will vote No in 2014 – although given the confidence many expressed of a crushing Labour victory at the last Holyrood elections even a few months before the SNP victory, I think your confidence may be premature. Even if the No camp does prevail of course, the problem remains of what the unionist camp will do in that event; they have little if any chance of coming up with a coherent plan for further devolution, and even less chance of delivering such a plan through a hostile Westminster. What happens when the “jam tomorrow” promises prove illusory, particularly if the Tories win the 2015 General Election? What happens if the little Englanders vote to leave the EU in 2017, but Scotland votes to stay in?

      The divisions within Scotland weren’t caused by the independence movement, or devolutionists, or the SNP; you are confused. The appetite for independence has grown because an increasing number of Scots no longer believe the UK as a polity can fulfil their aspirations, and see an increasing divergence socially, politically and economically.

      Anyone with the slightest experience of the indyref debate will be aware of the overwhelming negativity of the No campaign, in comparison with the inclusive, positive Yes campaign. Why else would the staff of the Better Together campaign themselves label it “Project Fear”? Why else would the Better Together Facebook page ruthlessly exclude any opposition contributions or comments, no matter how polite? (the Yes Scotland page doesn’t do this of course). Why does the No campaign have a negligible on-line presence and a dearth of grass roots campaigners or local organisation? The Better Together campaign even actively seek to exclude anyone who isn’t a convinced No voter from attending their events! Last but not least of course, the No campaign is funded almost exclusively by Tories who don’t even have a vote in the referendum, including one who tried to silence the National Collective and Wings Over Scotland web-sites when they publicised the nature of one of Better Together’s major paymasters Ian Taylor’s business dealings.

      Your point about referendums being a poor way of making long term decisions doesn’t hold much water either; what is the actual evidence for it? One might as well say the opposite; actually they are a great method of deciding such issues, as they allow cross party consensus on major issues, such as EU membership, electoral reform or self determination.

      If there isn’t a referendum in Catalonia when the great majority of Catalans support one, simply because the Spanish state tries to stop it, then anyone who supports such a suppression is not a democrat in any meaningful sense…it’s hardly rocket science. A plebiscitary election is quite defensible, as it would have been in Scotland had Westminster set its face against the referendum process and failed to sign the Edinburgh Agreement. The Catalan and Scottish cases are not identical of course, but their right to self determination is clear, and it is not contingent on the permission of any external actor.

      Please spare us your faux outrage about those acting as cheerleaders for the suppression of self determination being called out for being the anti-democrats they are; it convinces nobody. Those who share that view would be the ones more comfortable with UKIP and the Daily Mail; hiding behind the veil of it being an academic blog is about as convincing as the Great Oz’s curtain.

      • Jack Wilburton says:

        Once again you’ve ignored the thrust of the comment and started arguing from the perspective that 1) I’m a Unionist and 2) I’m arguing against a referendum in Catalonia. I’m not sure “straw man” even does this justice any more. That’s typically what happens when you have a warped, extremist viewpoint – even those in the centre become biased and you lurch into attack mode whenever anyone shows the faintest sign of perspective.

        As for referendums, I’m baffled that you aren’t familiar with these arguments already. Start with James Madison and a basic politics textbook if you must. You’re perfectly entitled to defend the use of referendums in specific cases, but the idea that rejecting the use of a referendum is per se “anti-democratic” is an argument so pathetically unconvincing that I’m amazed it even gets an airing anymore.

        You’ve then laughably tried to argue that the Yes campaign in Scotland are inclusive by attacking Better Together for not being inclusive. I’m sure the irony is lost on you, but needless to say you’ve proved the point. The fact that Better Together are also guilty of divisive campaigning doesn’t make the tedious cybernat act any better.

        I’m fully aware that you think waging internet warfare against anyone who happens to have a different opinion to you is the best strategy for winning the referendum. Drifting off into anti-Unionist rants at every opportunity and labeling anyone who disagrees with you a Tory seem to be par for the course. I understand why people buy into that nonsense – it’s easier to pretend the other side are subhuman scum than it is to reason with them like adults – but to argue that it’s not divisive is a stretch even for you.

        • Andy Ellis says:

          As is par for the course, you fail to address the substantive issues, and prefer to hide behind the faux outrage of the wounded but noble honest broker. I’ve no interest in interacting further thanks!

  7. Enric Blanes says:

    “Should Catalonia be an independent country?”. These words could be the question in the Catalan referendum in 2014. Sierra and Olivas are right: for the sake of transparency and accountability, the Catalan political debate should be articulated around this clear question. It will avoid confusion. It will be fair. So, let’s wait. We will see the question in a few weeks.

    Would it be an illegal question? Would it be an impossible question because of the Spanish Constitution? That is not the issue, in fact. An overwhelming majority supports a referendum in Catalonia. Allowing them to decide their own future is not a matter of law, but of justice. Nelson Mandela, a man who was punished by unfair laws, wrote: “In the end we must remember that no amount of rules or their enforcement will defeat those who struggle with justice on their side”.

  8. Michel says:

    The bottom of this issue, the real core, is the ability of nationalism to develop appealing attractive slogans, which, although empty and lacking intellectual background, work as slogans of commercial marketing, like anti-ride creams or cars. The effort made by the think-tanks of the catalan government is huge, in that sense. Something like that happened in Quebec, although in the catalan case there is a traditional typical spanish fanatism and a lack of answer form the Spanish government,which is unable to act in the name of Spain and not only in its own party.Also the lack of political culture of the citizens, still obvious after 35 years of democracy.

    • gsprochnawick says:

      Nationalism ? Is not nationalist to keep Catalonia in Spain by force ? Is not nationalism to be spaniard? This smells like Franco speech: ” Spain, the espiritual reserve of the western world”. I said on the first comment … very strange the concept called ” not nationalism “. ” Not nationalism ” minds to be spanish ” ? … Yes, that minds, exactly, for the major part of the spanish people. Europe is going to discover a lot of ” peculiars ” questions concerning Spain.

  9. Jenny says:

    Poor article. It seems that the authors are afraid of letting people vote. In fact, Ms Sierra is a usual contributor to the Spanish nationalist paper Cronica Global…

    • Koldo says:

      Poor and “ad hominem” argument. Cronica Global is a digital newspaper that makes excelent review about politics and current issues. In Spain there are elections almost every year to diferent administrations. It’s absurd to say that somebody is afraid about consulting the people because we are doing it constantly. What happens is that part of the representative members of the parliament of a region of Spain are pretending to decide in a question in wich they are not the competent authority.

      • Andy Ellis says:

        Ah, another anti-democrat insisting the people of Catalonia don’t have the right of self determination. Tell us, do you think the Scots are entitled to independence? Or perhaps you’d have denied the people of South Sudan their statehood…or East Timor? How about Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania?

        Are you seeing a pattern here? Are you seriously trying to argue that the wishes of the majority of the Catalan people should be disregarded because the Spanish constitution says so?

        Self determination for Catalonia isn’t in the gift of the Spanish state, and the sooner it and opponents of democracy realise it, the better for all concerned.

  10. gsprochnawick says:

    Excellent article. Just give references to this concept called “right to choose” is part of a very particular process that leads to confront another curious concept called “not nationalism.” It is my opinion that the analysis lacks knowledge concerning the idiosyncrasies of the people referred. Although flawless as analysis of legal nature.

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