Sunday, 15 September 2013

Should the UK be granted a referendum on membership in the European Union?

My answer to the question posed in the thread title is a tentative ‘no’.  My answer is tentative partly because I usually bestow considerable value on democratic choice and partly because I remain worried that my natural negative reaction to all Tory policy might cloud my judgement.  But, to the best I can exempt myself from this partiality, I do think that the ‘no’ answer is correct.  Here is my reasoning.

In the literature on secession, there are two broad positions.  On the one hand, some think there is a direct or primary right to secede.  That is, groups always have a right to choose to leave an existing state provided that they, as a group, meet some criteria.  The usual criteria are (a) being a ‘people’ with a shared set of cultural traditions or heritage distinct from those of the wider nation of which they are presently a part or (b) democratic election (e.g., by majority vote).  On the other hand, some think that there is ‘only’ a default or secondary right to secede.  Groups have this right only if their present government mistreats them in certain ways.  Here, the right to secede is like the right to revolution.  It is ‘activated’ if governments abuse citizens’ most basic rights, by, for example, torturing them or imprisoning them for their political beliefs.

My view is that secession cannot be a primary right.  It seems to me too permissive to allow groups such broad discretion on leaving an existing state.  In certain cases, this would permit patently unjust possibilities, such as the white South Africans responding to the end of Apartheid by voting to form an independent nation.  More generally, we surely think that there are limits on what a people can choose.  People do not have a right to disenfranchise part of the existing population of a nation on matters that concern them all, so why should they have a right to vote for border changes that would have the same effect?

Thus, my sense is that any right to secede from a political association must exist only on the condition that the political association surpasses a certain threshold of injustice.  If this line of reasoning is applied to the case of the EU, the UK clearly does not have a right to vote on its membership.

I guess that there are two possible objections to this view.  First, it might be argued that the EU is beyond a threshold of injustice.  I find it difficult to see how such a position could be substantiated.  Indeed, given some of its decisions, such as voting rights for prisoners, I am inclined to think it propagates less injustice than the UK.  But, at any rate, it clearly does not fall foul of grave human rights abuse or anything that would permit rebellion.  Second, it might be argued that there is a difference between seceding from a state and seceding from a supranational organisation.  I cannot say that I disagree with this thought, but I do not think that the difference will be sufficient to challenge my central claim.  Whatever the differences, the EU is a political association with binding rules of membership subject to demands of justice.  The parallels are not so far from much decentralised federal structures like Switzerland.  So, just as I believe the people of Zug do not have a right to choose independence from the Confœderatio, I do not think the UK should be granted a referendum on European Union membership.


  1. It might be worth drawing a distinction here: a) which status does the right of secession have, b) what are the overall moral reasons for or against secession in certain cases. You could grant that there is a pro tanto right to secession, but that in given situations it might be outweighed by other considerations of justice. Thus, in the example of the white South Africans, what would be wrong with such a step is not the idea of a secession as such, but that it would lead to a highly unjust outcome, that it would be a failure to take responsibility for past injustices, etc.
    I haven't thought about this question before, but my first impression is that one might be rather generous on the right of secession as such (i.e. *not* see it as similar to the right to revolution), but still hold that in many concrete cases it would be unjust to secede on other moral grounds.
    What do you think?

    1. Thanks for the thought, Lisa. Tentatively, I think I want to say that it is not possible, even in theory, to separate the issues in the fashion you suggest. It seems to me that there are two sets of worries with secession. First, we have indirect concerns that may arise in the situation of secession, such as the worry that white South Africans my try to avoid rectifying past injustice. Second, there are direct concerns about secession per se, issues that arise as a component part of the act. My thought attaches to the second of these issues. It is that sub-groups should not be free to make decisions that have certain kinds of effects on others within the set, such as restrictions on their movement and political rights with respect to some area of territory to which they have some form of joint claim and jurisdiction. I suppose there is a technical sense in which one might say that there remains a difference between the act of secession and the consequences of secession, but my sense here is that the set which involves the former, but not the latter is, by definition, empty. Secession – that is, the unilateral separation of a territorially-defined political union – always entails the consequences I suggest. They are a component part of the act. Thus, the moral status of the right to secede cannot be separated from them. (It is in this sense that I think the parallel to revolution, which necessarily has certain kinds of impacts on others members of a population, is apt.) And, if these consequences are objectionable, I think the pro tanto position must be against it.

      That, I think, is how I would respond to your suggestion initially, but perhaps there is a distinction within the category of component parts of the act that I have not seen. Does it, at least, convey my sense of difficulty with drawing the distinction?

    2. Well - I see the point, and I think I agree, but couldn't there be cases in which there is disagreement about one element, but not the other? I'm trying to think about an example. So there could be a case in which two parts of what is currently one country agree that in theory secession would be okay, but disagree about the consequences it would have, and therefore disagree on whether or not a secession is morally justified in the concrete historical circumstances... But I might be thinking in too legalistic terms here. Or I am more sympathetic to the idea of secession in general (I would have no problem with Zug leaving Switzerland, I think - would be a bit dysfunctional (and hence there might be questions about who would carry the costs of this dysfunctionality), but then you wouldn't want to force Liechtenstein to *enter* Switzerland either...)

    3. Andrew could you elaborate a bit more on:

      "It is that sub-groups should not be free to make decisions that have certain kinds of effects on others within the set, such as restrictions on their movement and political rights with respect to some area of territory to which they have some form of joint claim and jurisdiction."

      I think it is hard for me to accept that in most cases these restrictions are sufficient to remove another groups right to secede. For example in the case of the EU, do we think that not allowing free movement of labour to the UK does enough harm to those left within the EU, that it 'trumps' citizens of the UK right to secede.

      I think it more likely, perhaps I am wrong, that a European citizen who still has access to the rest of the EU, will not experience the same level of frustration (pursuing a meaningful and fulfilling life) as a British citizen who feels like they have no choice about their membership to the EU (which to them feels largely arbitrary and foreign, compared to their own state).

    4. Lisa, I think you might be right about some dimension here, but it is probably important to separate a number of different cases. Note that my argument does not apply to cases of ‘mutually agreed separation’, at least not necessarily. The position is not meant to reject, for example, something along the lines of the Czechoslovakia separation. The worry is the unilateral move. In these cases, I think it is difficult to envisage a case that does not involve the consequences I suggest.

      Will, my sense is that you are operating too much with the assumption that there is an extant right to secession. My thought is not that the worries over movement and political rights ‘trump’ such a right. It is that given these worries, no such right exists. (No such primary right, of course; as the original post says, I do think there is a default right to secession.) At any rate, for the trade-off you suggest to be pertinent, it seems that we need some account of why the right would exist. Perhaps the concern you state about dissatisfaction regarding supranational rule might enter here, but my sense is that such a line is not sufficient. We do not usually think dissatisfaction with a ruling power is enough to grant one a right to exact part-dissolution of a political association.

  2. My own thoughts for now: (will add a response to comments a bit later in the week)

    My default position is that where possible groups of peoples should be allowed to determine their own system of governance; however I agree with Andrew that there must be some restrictions in order to produce a viable state.

    We are concerned with two factors with ‘easy’ succession. Firstly that people will simply succeed from the state when they have an advantage in doing so. In poker it is a cardinal sin to walk away from the table the moment you win big, the same is similarly true for leaving a society. Reciprocity demands that you provide others with the opportunities that you yourself have taken advantage of (or at least provide them with some other compensation of equal value), by leaving the state and taking resources with you, you deny those you leave behind these opportunities.

    The second concern is for those you leave behind – it is conceivable that the remaining body of people does not possess the requisite characteristics to remain in a stable state by themselves, thus limiting their ability to live in a just society, exercise self-determination etc. I think this scenario would be rare, but must be considered.

    From this I would derive the following two rules:

    (The poker rule) No individual or group of peoples could succeed from a state, whose membership they have gained significant benefit from relative to those who will remain behind. In this way we can eliminate the option for white South Africa or London from succeeding (unless they pay a substantial fee in compensation?).

    Secondly, those left behind must have sufficient resources and ‘cultural capital’(?) to be able to form their own stable and just state.

    Following these rules I would argue that it is ok for Scotland to succeed from Great Britain and for North Dakota to succeed from the US (but not for example California to succeed).

    Bringing this back to the EU, I would need to be convinced that the UK had disproportionately benefited from its membership to the EU in a way that other members had not and would not be able to without having the UK as a member in the future. Presently I am not convinced of this and believe succession to be permissible.

    One question I am uncertain of is whether there are certain demands of justice that can only be pursued through the creation of supra-national organisations. If this is the case it may be that, by leaving the EU, the UK undermines an institution necessary for pursuing some higher level demands of justice?

    1. Will, I quite like your thinking on the 'two rules of secession’. I may be happy to accept the first as one rule of a general picture about secession. I am less sure about the second. If Group A was severely oppressed by Group B, I do not know if I think it is objectionable for the former to secede even if the latter cannot form a stable society without them. We have a case here of two great evils and I simply do not know which I think is worse.

      But on your overall position, I think I would offer the same reply as I gave to Lisa. What you offer, in a sense, are two negative clauses, or two reasons that would qualify an otherwise primary right to secede. But I think this position gives away too much to the act of secession which, as I say above, necessarily has certain negative consequences for other members of a population. I do not think we can be so allowing with such acts. Perhaps we are allowing with acts that have negative consequences of some kinds, such as freedom to pursue business opportunities even if it puts others out of business. But when consequences are of a certain kind – especially when they involve restricting or qualifying individual movement and political rights – we are usually very cautious. And since secession involves consequences of precisely this kind, I think we should treat it as needing special justification, not a standing freedom.

      (As an aside, I also hold the view you suggest in your last paragraph – that membership of the EU improves the legitimacy of the UK and that, as such, there is a another reason against secession in this case. I can send you a reference to a short piece I wrote on that line recently if you are interested. But I do think the anti-secession line is sufficient in this instance.)

    2. Thanks, Andrew. Could I please ask for a little clarification on why you are hestitant to reject a prima facie right to secession?

      Let us imagine a just society in which a minority wished to secede (unilaterally) and, if they were to, the two resulting societies would remain just. What reasons would we have for prohibiting the secession? Absent further argument, it seems to me that there are none. Just as we ought to protect a prima facie right to set up one's own business, for example, so too we ought to protect a prima facie right to secede.

      If correct, this suggests to me that the default ought to be to protect the freedom to secede. Of course, this is consistent with the view that certain instances of secession ought to be prohibited because of their deleterious effects - namely, if they damage the prospects of justice being realized in or between the would-be societies (as would be the case in the South Africa example).

    3. Tom, I think my response here needs to be something along the lines I have given above. To wit, I am not sure we should think about secession like the business case because the effects are rather different. To see the case, it is useful, I think, to consider other intra-state parallels. For example, imagine that within a country there is some common area, such as a plot of open land. Presently this land is under democratic control of the whole population and freely available to use for, say, hiking, since that is what the majority has determined for its use. Then, some group decides unilaterally that this land will no longer be accessible to other members of the population, builds barriers around it (which it defends by force), and denies any jurisdiction within to the government. I do not see any circumstance in which we would accept this move. It might be that we accept it if it were made by mutual agreement or in some special case, but surely we do not think it can be re-designated merely in virtue of a unilateral move on the part of some group within the population. I imagine that we do not think this move is acceptable because it has negative consequences of a certain kind – to wit, restrictions on movement and political rights – over an area under common jurisdiction without engaging in some process that might be able to legitimate the move (such as a mutual vote). If that intuition is correct, secession, which has the same features, seems to warrant similar caution. Thus, I would rather think it should be a special case that allows the move, rather than even a prima facie primary right. At any rate, I would need some convincing that it is more like the business case than the example I have set forth.

    4. Andrew, the idea in your example is that people hold something in common to start with and that they care about it. I am not sure this is always the case in secessions. In many countries, regional attachment is much stronger than national one (also to things like landscape, culture, history...). So the question would be: what does the population that remains in the country lose when there is a unilateral secession? Your example assumes that those who remain would lose something they can legitimately claim to belong to them. I think this is not always the case in unilateral secessions - Will's "second rule" comes in here, that there must be enough left.
      In some cases, the "thing in common" that a country has might simply be a certain self-understanding on the part of the majority that certain areas belong under its jurisdiction. But this might be the result of past conquests, racial prejudices, etc. In such cases, their self-understanding and their pride might be violated, but I doubt that this would be a sufficient reason to reject a unilateral secession.

    5. Lisa, one component of your point seems fair, but before addressing that, can I ask that the point is cast without reference to cases in which there is some injustice doing the work, such as past conquest or racial prejudice. The latter difficulties would be readily accommodated in my own account with a charitable reading of my parallel to revolution argument and it treats my comment rather unfairly to suggest that these cases are an objection to my view.

      The point that would press my argument is if, in a just/legitimate system, we have an area that is both thought to be specially connected to some group by that group and under common jurisdiction of the whole. But in such cases, I am not sure I see the objection you are pushing. Absent injustice, the wider population do have some claim to the region; to wit, the entitlement generated by the fact that, together, they have utilised this area as part of the project of forming a just polity. It strikes me that the population as a whole can happily cede that land to a sub-group who wish to go their own way, and, indeed, if they are a reasonable society, they may well do so. But I retain that even a group with a strong attachment to the area are not permitted simply to take it unilaterally. It seems that given the background, the rest of the population have a ‘reasonable complaint’ is they pursue their agenda in that fashion.

  3. without wanting to cut off the debate about prima facie/all things considered rights -applying the "Poker Rule" to Great Britain seems to cut a lot of ice. I don't remember the details, but Thatcher once negotiated the "Brits' discount" (or whatever it is called in English), and arguably there are numerous benefits from being part of an open market.
    But there are nonetheless questions about how to specify what exactly the benefits are, and how to quantify them (how far back do you want to go, anyway?) There is likely to be disagreement about them, which makes the "Poker Rule" difficult to apply in practice. But that might in fact help to stabilize existing states, because potential seceders will know that there is going to be a lot of controversy about how to buy themselves out. If all issues of past injustices (or to put it more neutral, benefits and burdens) could be settled by an exact bookkeeping exercise, it would be far easier to secede, on a purely practical level. Ignorance about how to do these calculations might help glue states together...