From Kirkuk to Catalonia, referendum votes leave much to be desired for those after autonomy

Democratic legitimacy does not always provide the legal leverage required to ensure independence, argues Damien McElroy

Syrian Kurds take part in a rally in the northeastern Syrian city of Qamishli on September 15, 2017, in support of an independence referendum in Arbil.

Iraqi Kurdish lawmakers approved holding an independence referendum on September 25 as members of the opposition boycotted the parliament's first session in two years. / AFP PHOTO / DELIL SOULEIMAN
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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 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.


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Yet the boundaries are the devils in the process of nationhood. There is little doubt that both votes in 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.


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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.

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