Sep 26, 2014

Scottish Referendum, Regardless of Outcome, Champions Self-Determination: European Parliament Conference Reiterates the Primacy of the Right to Decide

Brussels, 25 September 2014 – the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO) and the European Free Alliance (EFA), in cooperation with Centre Maurits Coppieters (CMC), convened a conference at the European Parliament entitled ‘The Right to Decide in the 21st Century: Scotland, Catalonia and beyond’, which was hosted by two MEPs from the EFA group, Ernest Maragall and Josep–Maria Terricabras. This timely conference was held in the wake of the Scottish independence referendum of 18 September, in which 45% of the respondents, or 1.6m people, declared their will to secede from the United Kingdom, on an almost unprecedented turnout of 85% of the electorate. The well-attended session explored the hotly debated concept of a nation’s ‘right to decide’, presenting a comprehensive overview of particular case studies and analyzing both current and future challenges, including the so-called ‘internal enlargement’ of the EU. Also present to support the initiative were MEPs Iosu Juaristi Abaunz (Basque region/Spain, GUE), Csaba Sógor (Hungarian minority/Romania, EPP), Jill Evans (Wales/UK, Greens/EFA) and Mark Demesmaeker (Flanders/Belgium, ECR).

Mr Terricabras, opening the conference, expressed gratitude to the participants and organizers for their service to communities in the heart of the EU. He was followed by UNPO Program Manager Johanna Green, who reasoned that the European Parliament, as the key symbol of European democracy and progress, offered the perfect venue for a conference examining peoples’ right to decide their own political future in non–violent democratic ways.

The first panel, ‘The Right to Decide in Theory and Practice’, was opened by Dr Koen De Feyter, a Chair of International Law at the University of Antwerp. He discussed the international responses to secessionist movements, and the concerns over peace and security agreements to which the ‘mother states’ may have committed, and which new states would be expected to follow. He suggested that new agreements or treaties between the successor and seceding states would be the most appropriate solution to such concerns, and that the international community would adopt a pragmatic approach to new political realities.

Dr Dirk Rochtus, Professor of International Relations at KU Leuven, described greater regional autonomy as a democratic right, and argued that such an increase perfectly suits a European body politic in which citizens enjoy closer engagement with the democratic process. Dr Rochtus posited that principally the scale of such movements provokes the international resistance, as anything apparently contradicting the global tendency towards larger unions is instinctively rejected as micro-nationalism or an expression of reactionary ideology.

Civic engagement offers a key platform in the right to decide, argued Miquel Strubell, an expert in the field of regional and minority languages, education and multilingualism. A series of initiatives emerged after the massive demonstration in 2006 when the proposed Catalan Statute of Autonomy was rejected; one of the most recent demonstrations occurred on September 11, when hundreds of thousands of Catalans lined up to form a huge ‘V’ for ‘vote’. However, Mr Strubell claimed that many Catalan activists are denounced, attacked in the press or subjected to mass telephone hacks. These actions denote a concerted campaign to discourage or derail Catalans’ national movement for self-determination.

Dr David McCrone, Emeritus Professor of Sociology at Edinburgh University, focused on the lessons to be learnt from the Scottish referendum. Among them was the importance of considering the possible consequences of the referendum as carefully as the referendum itself, and that plebiscites could create more problems than they solve. ‘Be careful what you wish for’ emerged as a key warning for future campaigns.

‘Why are we here?’ asked Mr Maragall, opening the second panel, ‘Looking Forward, Looking Outward’. He argued that the right to decide forms part of an international framework, and emphasized the importance of the attitudes of other states, international bodies and the EU, as without them most of the successful examples of self-determination would not have been realized.

The Secretary-General of Centre Maurits Coppetieters, Günther Dauwen, offered the key proposition that despite the previous week’s Scottish ‘No’ vote, the very fact that the Scottish people had been granted the opportunity to choose represented a beacon of hope and empowerment for stateless nations. The importance of networking within the EU could not be underestimated, and Scotland was able to develop such networks to promote the nation’s positive image in order to seek international support for, and acknowledgement of, its social, cultural and political agenda. He suggested that within the framework of globalization, sovereignty is no longer essential for entering the global stage, and from this platform stateless nations can in fact deploy ‘para-diplomacy’ as a tool to obtain sovereignty.

The theme of para-diplomacy was continued by Roland Coste, the director of Cabinet at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Savoy. Mr Coste contended that the size of a nation is not relevant; the people of Savoy have been calling for their rights to be respected for several years, and Europe cannot offer a peaceful future for any of its members without the right of recognition.

The panel was closed by a PhD researcher at Ghent University, Merijn Chamon, who delivered a speech regarding the controversial topic of EU ‘internal enlargement’. Mr Chamon considered that such a term is in fact a euphemism for fragmentation, and that a closer inspection of the legal issues surrounding this process could cause the EU manifold functional problems.

The conference was therefore a definitive success, which brought together politicians, academic experts and civil society representatives to illuminate and expand the concept of the right to decide, and its implications for nation states, international bodies and individual policy-makers. It also represents a continued open engagement with the theme of self-determination, which UNPO aims to develop further in the months ahead as the issue continues to gain traction and public attention on the world stage.