The world is full of small political units aspiring to become full-fledged nation-states, with a government, sovereignty, their own currency, anthem, flag, a seat in the U.N. and in other international organizations, new license plates, inherent country extensions, etc.
In Europe alone it is not only proud Catalonia. Scotland is considering a new referendum, and Kosovo is still striving for full sovereignty, as is Macedonia. Northern Italy and southern Tyrol, the components of Belgium, two eastern provinces of Ukraine, three separatist units in Georgia – all of them are exercising Sinatra’s motto of doing it ‘my way’. Beyond Europe, there is the Rakhine state in Myanmar from which the Rohingyas are currently being expelled, as well as Tibet and Xingiang, there is also the issue of Kashmir, of Aceh in Indonesia, of Quebec in Canada, the recent referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan, and so on.
With rare exceptions (the dissolution of old Czechoslovakia), these calls for more autonomy or even secession provoke violent reactions from the host state. One reason is that we do not really have clear guidelines as to, if, and under what conditions, such processes can and should be implemented. The right of self-determination – guaranteed by the U.N. – does not provide criteria and procedural recommendations. The respective host state rarely is cooperative. The international community often looks the other way.
What would be good principles to act in cases where culturally defined minorities (mostly inspired by their elites) want to leave their host states?
– Klaus Segbers
Here we go. Europe may fail. This is the first time I am writing such a thing (partly) publicly. There are dozens of questions relating to this possibility. I suggest you focus on one today: Should we all be partially to blame? You may have heard about (or even read) the widely discussed New York Times article by Mark Lilla on ‘The End of Identity Liberalism’ (see reading below).
Lilla’s basic point is that liberals (he covers the US, but his point may be extended globally) have enjoyed the luxury of preaching liberal values, while huge groups of their fellow citizens were completely indifferent, or even felt threatened and excluded by these values. According to Lilla, this often went hand-in-hand with preaching to the ‘uneducated’ – for them to better understand things (international trade immigration, sexual and other identity politics), and to accommodate these liberal values.
He sees here, one of the major reasons for the apparently unstoppable success of populism:
‘The fixation on diversity in our schools and in the press had produced a generation of liberals and progressives narcissistically unaware of conditions outside their self-defined groups, and indifferent to the task of reaching out to Americans in every walk of life’.
He suggests that a more careful liberalism would ‘quietly, sensitively and with a proper sense of scale’, address what for many people, are difficult issues like religion and sexuality. Lilla also suggests that such a re-invented (maybe more civilized?) liberalism would address that ‘democracy is not only about rights’, but also includes duties such as the duty ‘to keep informed and vote’.
Please join me in this discussion and let’s delve into this quite complex issue of liberals’ responsibility for the rise of populism.
– Prof. Klaus Segbers
To hold a referendum seems to have become the newest way of externalizing difficult issues. For sure, there are countries with a long tradition of directly involving their citizens with all kinds of issues, like accepting foreigners or not, raising taxes or not, or to add a train or not. In Switzerland, people are used to it, and one could make the point that the political system there may be flexible enough to digest it – though a while ago, the almighty people voted in favor of limiting the movement of EU citizens which produced a problem for the de-facto Swiss membership in the common market.
But otherwise, referenda are blossoming, and regardless of whether they create confusion or not, seem to be gaining in popularity. We do not have to mention the Brexit referendum that failed to meet the expectations of their organizers (and subsequently outed them from office), and the consequences of which the UK and EU officials now have to focus on for years to come. But there was however, one referendum on accepting a certain number of asylum seekers in the EU framework in Hungary (that equally failed), which will now be circumvented by the government. There was another referendum on the peace deal in Colombia a few days ago – that one failed too, and both government and the formerly armed opposition, FARC, now have to remedy the damage. In November, Italy will hold a referendum looking for the consent of the people to streamline their so-far awkward decision-making process which is predicted to probably fail as well. Let’s not forget the referenda on planned EU treaty revisions that went down: Ireland rejected Nice in 2001, Denmark and Sweden rejected Europe in 2000 and 2003, France and the Netherlands rejected the EU Constitution in 2005, and so on.
The question for this week is: Why on earth are sane politicians continuing to put complex issues in the hands of voters who decide by whatever criteria, but rarely on the substance of an issue?
– Prof. Klaus Segbers
(Photo: E. Arrott/Voice of America)