A remark by Catalan president Carles Puigdemont on Israel’s public TV network suggesting that Catalans should be allowed to decide in a referendum whether they wish to be an EU member or not has sparked off a fresh flurry of slurs and word-twisting. President Puigdemont made it clear that he wants to remain part of the EU and the eurozone, but wondered if the EU’s stance on the Catalan issue might be so serious as to ask the people of Catalonia whether they wish to belong to a club like that.
It is striking that such a reasonable, impeccably democratic suggestion should elicit the averse, anti-democratic reaction that we saw yesterday. What is the reason why the people should be told that they are not allowed to vote on this issue? Regardless of the implications to do with Catalonia’s independence process, why shouldn’t it be up to the people to make that sort of decision? Are they really so afraid of people voting?
Furthermore, this controversy is absurd in Europe’s case. Those who slam Puigdemont are actually suggesting something which contravenes what is standard practice in the same EU which they claim to stand up for. Holding a referendum on matters to do with Europe is hardly unusual: in fact, it is the norm. Since 1972, forty-eight referendums have been held on whether to join the EU or not, as well as on key issues such as the constitutional process. That’s forty-eight. And that is not including the eleven votes (11) held in Switzerland on EU matters between 1972 and 2014. Out of all forty-eight ballots, only one was held in Spain. It was not decide whether to join the EU or not, but about the 2005 draft constitution. Incidentally, turnout for that referendum was 41 per cent, which didn’t prompt anyone to argue that it was insufficient. Behold the unionists’ usual double standards …
Let us examine the hard data: most EU member states held a referendum to validate their accession. In 1972 Denmark, Ireland and Norway asked their citizens whether they should join and the French had a vote on whether those countries should be allowed to join. At the time only Norway said no. In 1975 the UK put the question to a vote. Greenland, which is part of Denmark, voted to leave the EU in a 1982 referendum. The Single European Act and the Maastricht Treaty were approved in a referendum held in Denmark (three times), Ireland (twice), Italy and France. In 1994 Austria, Finland, Sweden, the Åland Islands (which belong to Finland) and Norway held a vote on EU membership, which Norway rejected once again. The Treaties of Amsterdam and Nice were voted in Ireland (in three separate referendums!) and Denmark. The 2004 enlargement of the EU saw nine votes held in Malta, Slovenia, Hungary, Lithuania, Slovakia, Poland, the Czech Republic, Estonia and Latvia. In 2013 Croatia also held a referendum on EU accession, which brings the number of member states who have consulted their people on EU membership to sixteen out a total twenty-eight member states. When you consider that today’s European Union stems from the original European communities founded by six countries, the number of countries that have joined the EU without first asking their people is only six. Spain is one of them, obviously. The other five are Bulgaria, Romania, Portugal, Cyprus and Greece. Revealing.
Following the 2004 enlargement, there have been a further twenty-three referendums all the way to Brexit in 2016, which is the last one to have been held.
Clearly the latest votes have yielded a result that was contrary to the Union’s interests in many cases. France and The Netherlands said no to the constitution in 2005. Ireland rejected the Lisbon Treaty. The Greek said no to the austerity measures dictated by Brussels. Denmark said no to the so-called opt-out in 2015. The Netherlands rejected the deal with Ukraine in a referendum that was regrettable in terms of the campaign ahead of the vote. Finally, the British decided to leave the EU. Therefore, saying “No” —which was exceptional for forty years— has almost become the norm these days. That is the argument which Puigdemont’s opponents present to claim that a referendum on EU membership would be against the Union.
Still, the question we should ask is why is this happening? It is not that —contrary to some claims— referendums are dangerous. They weren’t for forty years. What is dangerous is that the EU’s policies and attitudes have changed radically and today many people across Europe loathe the institutional architecture that has been created. The EU has come up with a system whereby unelected officials in Brussels decide on policies and major issues, under the visible influence of powerful pressure groups, whereas in the member states the people’s elected representatives can do nothing because their hands are tied. This became immediately apparent in the case of Greece. Europe has gradually turned into a behemoth which people naturally reject. On this point, us Catalans should not forget that the scorn and arrogance of that pathetic individual called Jean Claude Juncker is not aimed at us because we are Catalan, but because we are citizens. It is the same scorn and arrogance that allows them to have a good night’s sleep while people drown every day in the Mediterranean sea; the same that got two unelected Italian prime ministers sworn in and upset the British so much that they decided to leave.
It is the EU which has a real problem nowadays and, unfortunately, is it headed for its demise unless it changes radically and starts listening and respecting the will of the people again. This time Catalans have felt it in the flesh and, therefore, today this is an additional argument to decide whether we want to be in a withering club that has hijacked democracy for the sake of the large economic interests. But I would like to emphasise the main argument: only six of the twenty-eight member states joined the EU without their citizens being allowed to decide democratically if it was in their best interest or not. As Spanish nationals, we were dragged into the EU without being asked, like they have done with so many other things. Therefore, suggesting that the people be allowed to make a decision on this matter is not nutty, but it would resolve an extraordinary historic anomaly and would highlight, once again, the fact that us Catalans do not want our republic to be an 18th century state, like Spain today, but a democracy that is as advanced and modern as possible.