Self-determination, bad arguments, and hypocrisy

Some arguments used by politicians and diplomats on questions of separatism and self-determination are simply so bad that they might just as well not use the arguments at all but rather be honest about the reasons for their position. Here I discuss a few arguments that are used regarding the situation in Catalonia.

1. “It is an internal Spanish affair”: this doesn’t mean anything. Everything that happens inside a country is an internal affair, that doesn’t mean that others should not have an opinion on it (this doesn’t logically follow at all). The EU gets involved all the time in things happening in other countries and there is no reason why they should not do so, if injustice is taking place.

2 “The Catalan referendum was unconstitutional, the Catalans should respect the rule of law, so intervention by the Spanish authorities was justified” etc.: laws are made by the powerful. They are not automatically just. “The law says it is not allowed, so it is wrong” is not an argument. This would be the same kind of argument as “insulting Erdogan is against Turkish law, everyone should respect the rule of law, so the arrest of foreign journalists who insulted Erdogan while in Turkey was justified”.

More generally, this point is moot as constitutions aim at establishing and upholding an existing political order. Any change in this political order to which the powerful do not agree is more or less bound to be unconstitutional or against the existing law. The United States Declaration of Independence was pretty much certainly not valid under British law. Did this make it wrong? The removal of the Ukrainian president Yanukovich from power in 2014 was not constitutional either, as it didn’t follow the constitutional impeachment process. The EU obviously did not say anything about this. A revolution is by definition ‘illegal’.

This is why it is hypocritical when EU politicians use idealistic language in defending their position, such as Timmermans saying: “We have shaped our democratic societies based on three principles: democracy, respect for the rule of law and human rights … The regional government of Catalonia has chosen to ignore the law in organizing the referendum of last Sunday”. The issue at hand is precisely which people should be the ‘demos’ governing democracy in Catalonia (the Catalan people or the people from all of Spain) and who should get to determine what laws apply in Catalonia. Assuming from the outset that the law, which says that sovereignty over Catalonia lies with Spain, is just, because it was democratically decided by the people from Spain, is completely question-begging.

3. “This can only be solved through dialogue between the two parties”: this statement completely ignores the realities of power. How is dialogue between one powerful party (the Spanish government) and one non-powerful party (the Catalan government) supposed to lead to a just outcome for the latter? What if in this ‘dialogue’, the Spanish government simply says that it will not make any concessions to Catalonia, what should then happen according to the people who pretend the one and only solution is ‘dialogue’?

In the end the question boils down to whether there should be a right of self-determination, i.e. whether a people should ultimately be able to decide themselves whether they should be independent or not. If so, other things are completely irrelevant, like the region’s history: what matters is what the currently living citizens want.

Denying such a right seems extremely hard to defend. One could say that the rest of the country should also be involved in the process because a decision of a region to separate also affects them, or that a decision to separate should require a larger, qualified majority, perhaps in several instances, because of the drastic and possibly irreversible nature of it. However, it seems indefensible that people in other parts of the country (who are normally in the majority compared to those in a separatist region) should get the final say on the future of people living in a particular region.

Arguments against the right to self-determination are usually fallacious, e.g. generalised slippery slope arguments (‘separatism leads to violence, see Yugoslavia’), purely consequentialist arguments (‘if regions could separate, it would lead to instability’) that then jump to a conclusion without arguing the necessary step that these consequences are more important than principles of democratic self-determination, and the range of arguments amounting to ‘the law of the country it currently falls under does not allow it, so it is wrong’ which is a non sequitur for the reasons mentioned under point 2.

For an astonishing example of a Yale professor using all of these fallacies in one published article (in this case on Crimea), see https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/mar/14/crimean-referendum-illegal-international-law . (This also raises the question of whether newspapers select the articles they publish based on the quality of the arguments or on the status of the author, as apparently articles based almost wholly on fallacies can get published in prominent papers as long as they are written by someone such as a professor at Yale.)

I have a suggestion for a new press statement for European heads of state:

“We have an interest in maintaining our power and the stability and predictability of the current governance situation in Europe. Self-determination of the Catalan people because would encourage other separatist movements in Europe. This threatens our interests because we might lose control over parts of the countries we govern, and because the governance situation in Europe would change. Therefore, we do not support an ultimate right to self-determination in Catalonia.” Immoral, but at least logical and not hypocritical.