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Why Europe needs referenda

About the authors
Dan O'Brien has covered EU affairs and many western European countries at the
Daniel Keohane is a Research Fellow at the Centre for European Reform, an independent think-tank in London. His research interests include European security and defence policy, and the future of Europe debate.

Europe’s rulers and ruled have less in common on the European Union than on any other issue. Surveys show popular support for the Union at close to a twenty-year low. In some member countries there is clear unease at the direction of the European enterprise; in more, there is a studied lack of interest; in none do people take to the streets demanding ‘more Europe’. But popular sentiment contrasts starkly with elite opinion. Almost every conventional political party in almost every country from the Atlantic to the Urals believes EU membership to be good.

Some argue that the EU will earn greater legitimacy by doing what it is tasked to do more effectively. They say that even if people neither love nor trust the Union, they will warm to it provided it delivers the goods.

But this approach is flawed. Effectiveness does not by any means guarantee legitimacy. In Europe’s case it can even undermine it – many citizens perceive Brussels to be peopled by ruthlessly efficient Eurocrats who already have too much power over their lives. No matter how misplaced this perception (elected ministers and parliamentarians make all EU law, not civil servants), the EU has become a sufficiently important pillar of governance in Europe to warrant concern about its cracking legitimacy foundation.

In recognition of the EU’s growing importance, a new “constitutional treaty” for the Union will be agreed by 2004. If legitimacy is to be strengthened there is a compelling case to include provisions to give a direct role to the citizens of Europe, by means of referenda on treaty changes, starting with the constitution itself. And with 88% of the delegates to the European Convention – the body drawing up the EU constitution – advocating a vote on their proposals, there is considerable support for such a development.

Referenda: bringing light and life to politics

Referenda have their deficiencies, but they can also accomplish five things.

First, they generate understanding and encourage participation by focusing attention on the EU and its workings. Europe’s politicians often complain that when they talk about Europe they find that electorates show little interest. This is unsurprising. The issues that most trouble voters — public services, employment and crime — are still decided largely at the national level. The EU’s most important functions — such as the single market, international trade negotiations and competition policy — are technical and unglamorous, even if central to modern governance. Because these issues have limited salience, they are eclipsed at election time.

Referenda specifically on the EU are the only way of putting the Union and what it does at political centre-stage. This should be welcomed, not feared, by integrationists because there is a mountain of evidence to show that the more people know about the EU, the more they like it.

Second, the light cast by referenda also explodes many myths about the EU. The top-down nature of the EU and its complex functioning are a gift to opponents of integration, as well as to populists, political opportunists and conspiracy theorists. As the moderate centre is often reluctant to engage with such elements, the result is that the (usually wrong) charges against the EU go unchallenged and often seep into the public consciousness.

Referenda force the political centre to confront directly those who play on people’s fears – of foreigners in distant capitals foisting decisions on powerless citizens – in a way that simply does not happen in any other context.

Third, referenda inject a dose of human drama into the technocratic machinery and arid theory of EU integration. “If you want a crowd, start a fight” said P.T. Barnum, the 19th century showman. The vibrant controversy of real political argument is not only informative and engaging, it associates identifiable people with the project and does much to counter the argument that Europe is run by “faceless” bureaucrats.

Fourth, referenda also appeal to modern assertive electorates. Increasingly educated and empowered citizens demand to be in control; deference towards those in positions of power is dead. The “we know best” approach to integration has been fairly successful thus far, but to continue with it would only invite a backlash from voters who trust their own instincts before politicians even when they know they are less than fully informed. By putting power in the hands of voters, people have the reassuring sense that they have the final say on further integration.

The accession referendums in candidate countries – most recently Lithuania, Slovakia, Malta, and Poland – have helped legitimise the decision to join. But as a way of rebuilding eroded legitimacy in countries that have long been members, Ireland’s experience in two referendums on the Nice treaty is probably most apposite.

In the first referendum on the Nice treaty in mid-2001, a low turnout (only one person in three voted) saw the treaty narrowly rejected, to much surprise in Ireland and abroad. For the second, last-chance referendum in October 2002, pro-EU forces – fearing a second and final rejection – came out in greater numbers. Irish integrationists, forced to unlearn their impenetrable euro-jargon, were obliged to explain to voters in plain language not only the advantages of Nice, but why the EU continues to be in their interests.

As the poll approached, the EU was discussed as never before. In the media and in public meetings, advocates and sceptics debated arcane matters – qualified majority voting, enhanced co-operation, veto power, defence obligations (Ireland’s neutrality was a passionately contested issue) – that would not be voiced even at European Parliament elections. By polling day the issues were understood and fears assuaged. The end result was a doubling of the vote in favour. The treaty was passed by close to a two-thirds majority.

All on board the Euro-express

In the case of the Irish referenda, as in other equivalent exercises, there is however a mismatch between those who actually voted (the Irish people) and those affected by the outcome of the vote (the citizens of the present EU plus the accession countries). If the Irish had voted 'no' again, the entire Nice treaty would have been aborted. There is surely something undemocratic about 4 million people deciding the political future of 430 million.

It is time to establish a guiding principle: all Europeans should vote on European constitutional changes. The equivalent of this happens in fully-fledged federations, such as Switzerland and Australia. In both countries a change to the constitution must have a double majority – both of states and of voters. Such a model, adapted to include super-majorities to prevent domination by large states, is the best available option to bring the EU and its peoples closer.

Aside from the usual referendum suspects - Denmark and Ireland - most other governments have indicated that they will also probably hold referenda on the new EU constitutional treaty. That is a step in the right direction. But to address the EU’s embryonic legitimacy crisis, all Europeans should have their say. Only then will the EU be able to claim to represent its citizens as well as its elites.


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