Ref­er­en­dums are not the way to get au­ton­omy

The National - News - - FRONT PAGE - DAMIIEEN McCEELLRROOYY Lon­don Bureau Chief

De­spite last-minute pleas from friends and foes alike, the Kur­dis­tan Re­gional Govern­ment ap­pears set to go ahead with a ref­er­en­dum on in­de­pen­dence later this month. In quick suc­ces­sion, the Span­ish re­gion of Cat­alo­nia will hold a sim­i­larly dis­puted plebiscite on Oc­to­ber 1. Could we be fac­ing sig­nif­i­cant acts to break up parts of Europe and the Mid­dle East in a mat­ter of days?

More­over, on the hori­zon, once again, is the prospect of a Scot­tish vote to leave the United King­dom.

The on­ward march of a na­tion is a se­duc­tive process to be­hold. At the point of apoth­e­o­sis, the pit­falls of the leap to sovereignty are not al­ways ob­vi­ous.

De­vo­lu­tion or au­ton­omy has been the hand­maiden of the in­de­pen­dence de­mands in all three cases.

The KRG vote is a non-bind­ing ref­er­en­dum slated for Septem­ber 25. Cat­alo­nian of­fi­cials term their ex­er­cise a con­sul­ta­tive vote on a repub­lic. And af­ter a 10-point loss in 2014 was trumped by the Brexit ref­er­en­dum to leave the EU last year, Scot­land is on no­tice that an­other plebiscite is prob­a­ble.

Kur­dish lead­ers have been clear for more than a decade that the European na­tions were a model in their own strug­gle.

Weeks be­fore the US-led in­va­sion of Iraq, I sat with Hosh­yar Ze­bari, the lead­ing Kur­dish politi­cian, in Erbil as he looked at the forth­com­ing bat­tle to re­shape Iraq.

Bal­anc­ing a ruler in his hand as he sat at his of­fice desk, Mr Ze­bari dis­cussed his ad­mi­ra­tion for Scot­tish de­vo­lu­tion. Even then, he saw de­vel­op­ments in Ed­in­burgh as a beacon. Time has cer­tainly strength­ened Mr Ze­bari’s case. The KRG has proved more co­he­sive than any other au­thor­ity in Iraq. It has ful­filled the fun­da­men­tal task of main­tain­ing or­der and se­cu­rity for its peo­ple. It has proven its ad­her­ence to modern and mod­er­ate ideas of govern­ment.

Add to that the cir­cum­stances. There has been an ide­o­log­i­cal switch in Bagh­dad to sec­tar­ian pol­i­tics and a col­lapse into Ira­nian dom­i­nance. It’s hard to naysay the Kur­dish im­pulse to break away.

The fu­ture, it ap­pears, has taken on a logic of its own.

Yet the bound­aries are the devils in the process of na­tion­hood. There is lit­tle doubt that votes in both the Kur­dish re­gion and Cat­alo­nia, which is a prov­ince of Spain, will re­turn a re­sound­ing “yes”.

It is not, how­ever, a given that this could lead to in­de­pen­dence. Both ex­er­cises do not have le­gal force but seek to lever­age the power of demo­cratic le­git­i­macy.

Given the scale of the ex­ist­ing tur­moil in the re­gion, an ex­er­cise in draw­ing new bor­ders in the Mid­dle East is fan­tas­ti­cally per­ilous.

Di­vided by lan­guage, only one Kur­dish com­mu­nity will claim its na­tional rights. There are two mil­lion mainly Sunni Arabs who have taken refuge in the KRG. What, ul­ti­mately, hap­pens to these peo­ple?

In con­text, the KRG is land­locked. The sur­round­ing states are all hos­tile to its am­bi­tions. While all are also weak­ened by their own in­ter­nal con­tra­dic­tions, they can­not be ex­pected to act as friendly neigh­bours.

The Kurds like to say Kirkuk is their Jerusalem and that the city has been in­cluded in the ref­er­en­dum bal­lot­ing area. The con­test for Jerusalem it­self has its own lessons for what could hap­pen next.

Break­ing away from a na­tional union is one chal­lenge. The dy­namic al­ters again when there is a re­gional union lay­ered on top.

Cham­pi­ons of in­de­pen­dence in Cat­alo­nia, like those in Scot­land in 2014, of­fer the prospect of break­ing away from one union, the King­dom of Spain, by re­tain­ing the cush­ion of seam­less ties within the European Union.

With a men­tal­ity fash­ioned by cen­turies of con­quest and re­bel­lion, Madrid re­jects this as sophistry.

Spain’s con­sti­tu­tional court has banned the ref­er­en­dum. The cen­tral govern­ment is pros­e­cut­ing the Cata­lan of­fi­cials in­volved in or­gan­is­ing the bal­lot.

Post­men have even been threat­ened with jail for de­liv­er­ing ref­er­en­dum ma­te­rial.

It is not clear that Cat­alo­nia could join the EU. Realpoli­tik says Brus­sels must ad­mit the re­gion, but the new state must ap­ply and a venge­ful Spain would have a veto. Even so, the threat to keep it out seems too far-fetched.

Scot­land’s fate is also tied up in a dilemma. Vot­ing to leave the United King­dom, which Scot­land joined by act of par­lia­ment in 1701, rep­re­sented a less rad­i­cal step be­fore Brexit.

Both states would con­tinue in the same mar­ket with no cap­i­tal, cus­toms or im­mi­gra­tion con­trols.

Now, the liveli­hood ques­tion is posed afresh. Ed­in­burgh suf­fered a brusque re­buff from White­hall when it de­manded that all of Bri­tain stay in the EU sin­gle mar­ket.

By de­fault or choice, Scot­land must turn its back on one of the two en­ti­ties. Which route rep­re­sents the greater risk?

The fullest mea­sure of a na­tion’s rights is to be­come a coun­try. Yet the ref­er­en­dum is an im­per­fect tool to re­solve the un­der­ly­ing con­flict be­tween the heart and head.

Given the scale of re­gional tur­moil, an ex­er­cise in draw­ing new bor­ders in the Mid­dle East is fan­tas­ti­cally per­ilous

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