The democratic risk

J Clive Matthews
26 September 2007

According to the Sun's poll the other day, 81% of the UK population wants a referendum on the EU reform treaty - but what about in other EU countries? Well, back in June the Financial Times ran a poll to find out just that.

The result? It's not just Brits who want a say on whether one of the most complex and convoluted international treaties ever drafted should be adopted.

According to the FT poll, 68% in Italy, 64% in France, 71% in Germany and 75% in Spain want a referendum. Yet at the moment, it looks like it will only be Ireland that will hold a referendum on the new treaty, and only because it is constitutionally obliged to do so. Most EU member states - despite the apparent desire of the people to have a say - are not interested in having a vote.

In the Netherlands - which famously held a referendum on the old constitution in 2005, which 61.5% of the people rejected on a 63% turnout - Prime Minister Jan-Peter Balkenende is coming under even more pressure than Gordon Brown in the UK.

There's even a former European Commissioner, Frits Bolkestein of the Bolkestein Directive fame, arguing in favour of a referendum in the Netherlands - despite the fact that 92% of Dutch people think it is the same as the old constitution that they've already rejected.

Bolkestein's reasoning gets to the heart of the whole issue of democratic participation in the EU:

"If this government does not organize a referendum, then the people will think: whatever the ladies and gentlemen in politics fail to achieve via the front door, they will do so via the backdoor. It will increase the eurocynicism"

Even pro-EU people are beginning to advocate some kind of vote, if only to show the people of Europe that their opinions matter. Yet with a population of nearly half a billion people, speaking so many different languages and with no way of discussing amongst each other, and with any changes to the EU still having to be decided unanimously by all 27 member states, can a consensus ever be reached?

Consensus is not necessarily the aim of the Tomorrow's Europe poll, yet it nonetheless hopes to answer the question of what the people of Europe want. Yet will this poll actually be listened to by anyone? How will the results be used? Will they be representative? And, perhaps most importantly, will the people of Europe notice - and will they accept it?

Over the next couple of weeks, a range of specialists in the field will be appearing on dLiberation to give their opinions. I've been furiously contacting academics and politicians over the last week or so, and now the responses are beginning to come in - from MEPs and members of the European Commission through to leading academics, as well as ordinary people who have been involved in such polls before.

If you want to take part, or have any suggestions of people whose opinions would be good to hear, let me know.

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