It's time for Europe to stop holding referendums


he European Union lexicon, already stuffed with ugly words and phrases, needs to coin a new one: "plebiphobia." Unlike some anxieties, the fear of referendums is well-grounded. Following Britain's vote in June to leave the union, plebiscites this autumn in Hungary on migration and in Italy on constitutional reform may further destabilize the EU. More fundamentally, plebiphobia rules out the very reforms needed to prevent more Brexit-like uprisings.

The EU's checkered relationship with referendums goes back a long time, restraining its otherwise seemingly relentless expansion. In 1972, Norwegians voted against membership and stayed out of the second wave of members - Britain, Denmark and Ireland - that joined a year later. A vote in Greenland in 1982, which had joined as part of Denmark, led to its exit from the European club in 1985. In 1994, Norwegians again disregarded the advice of national elites and voted against EU membership. That left Norway - along with Iceland and Liechtenstein - in the half-way house of the European Economic Area with essentially full access to the EU single market but no vote and little say on related European legislation.

Referendums have stalled the EU's expansion not just to the north but in the heart of Europe. Switzerland, which holds the torch for direct democracy, has held two referendums on joining the European Union. The Swiss rejected integration both times. In 1992, they narrowly rejected membership in the European Economic Area, which they feared would be the first step toward EU membership. It didn't necessarily make their lives easier. The Swiss government has since had to negotiate 120 bilateral agreements, which collectively provide less favorable access to the single market than entry into Europe's economic area would have even though they also allow free movement of EU citizens. Now this arrangement is in jeopardy following a referendum vote in 2014 to cap migration.

Referendums have also restricted the reach of the euro zone, the just-about-beating heart of the European project. Whereas ill-suited economies in southern Europe were among the first to join the monetary union, two Nordic countries that could have coped with its rigors were unable to win popular votes. Although Denmark had secured an opt-out against joining the euro zone, the government nonetheless held a referendum in 2000 on joining. The Danes rejected the proposal, as did Swedish voters in 2003. Sweden has enjoyed an informal opt-out since then.

The EU's increasingly strained relationship with referendums is no accident. Since 1972 there have been 55 EU-related national referendums, of which 46 have been held since 1992. Governments have been calling for plebiscites in response to the accelerated pace of integration as the EU has expanded from 12 member states in the early 1990s to 28 by 2013 (when Croatia joined) and ties among them have deepened, most of all in the monetary union that now has 19 members. Switzerland is the most inveterate referendum holder, having held eight altogether, but the practice is widespread. Of the 28 EU members, only five have not resorted to referendums, notably Germany, along with Belgium, Bulgaria, Cyprus and Portugal.

Referendums have most typically been held about membership, but they have also been prompted by significant changes in the EU treaties that govern relations among member states. These have to be endorsed by a referendum in Ireland, whose voters have learned the hard way that the European Union does not take no for an answer. On two occasions the Irish have rejected a new treaty, only to have to hold a second referendum to approve some minor concessions. But whereas pressure can be put upon a small state, it does not work for countries with more heft. In 2005, referendums held successively in France and the Netherlands voted down a treaty establishing a European constitution, although the substance of the plan was retained in the Lisbon Treaty of 2007.

That two of the six founder states rejected European integration inhibited a root-and-branch response to the euro crisis when it broke in early 2010. Wary of more close encounters with national electorates, euro-zone leaders led by German Chancellor Angela Merkel studiously avoided reforms requiring fundamental treaty changes. A minor amendment to the Lisbon Treaty forestalled legal challenges to the creation of the European Stability Mechanism, but the bailout fund was itself created under international rather than EU law. Fenced in by existing treaties, the institutional reforms made to prop up the insecure foundations of the monetary union were makeshift themselves.

Making matters worse, European leaders no longer fear only EU-related plebiscites. They are especially concerned about Italy's upcoming referendum on constitutional reforms because Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has said he will resign if the vote fails to endorse his drastic shakeup of the parliament. Renzi's departure would inject political uncertainty into the euro zone's third-biggest economy, already shaky because its weak banks are weighed down by bad loans.

Plebiphobia threatens to reduce the EU to a state of paralysis. There is an unwelcome parallel to the ailing condition of the European project in the early 1980s, when it was unable to tackle economic stagnation - dubbed "eurosclerosis" - because of national vetoes of decisions made in the Council of Ministers. The stalemate was broken when the Single European Act of 1986 did away with unanimity, which allowed the single market to be created. Now the blockage lies in making additional changes to the treaties. If it persists, the European Union may find Brexit the least of its worries.

© (c) Copyright Thomson Reuters 2016.

©2021 GPlusMedia Inc.

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Yeah, what's next ? Ditch Democracy and general elections... ? The Economist is an increasingly nasty newspaper

5 ( +7 / -2 )

This is in line with Abe's thinking too:

“The way the Constitution should be, the kind of country Japan should aim to be—these things are not decided by the government, but by the people, and it is our responsibility as Diet lawmakers to communicate such plans to the people,” Abe said in his speech.

-3 ( +1 / -4 )

The author and other pro-elite people like him are keen to find a way of curbing the rights of people who disagree with them.

And how about Norway and Switzerland, eh?. Such basket-case economies. Well, apart from having the world' highest socio-economic development levels on the planet. I guess they've been doing something right.

3 ( +5 / -2 )

Referendums shouldn't be abolished, but their setup needs vast improvement. Most modern day issues are too complex and sensitive for the average burger flipper to understand so am bewildered why it's a good idea to get the lowest breed to decide for everyone.

The Brexit referendum was one of the biggest travesties of democracy of all time due to the reducing of an issue too complex for any single person to grasp into a simple Yes/No. The coming consequences are therefore 100% deserved.

-2 ( +6 / -8 )

I think that more referenda would be better for Europe. Agree this elite approach to running the EU has ended in the disaster we see before us.

3 ( +8 / -5 )

Dear Paul Wallace: You guys are on the wrong side of history.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

Hilter and Mussolini loved referenda. The one who controls the questions on the ballot paper and the timing will usually be able to control the result (except if he's a complete idiot like David Cameron).

0 ( +3 / -3 )

dcog9065SEP. 30, 2016 - 11:11AM JST

Referendums shouldn't be abolished, but their setup needs vast improvement. Most modern day issues are too complex and sensitive for the average burger flipper to understand so am bewildered why it's a good idea to get the lowest breed to decide for everyone.

Spot on dcog. Referendums on complex issues are populists' weapon of choice, the perfect way to use over simplistic (or false) arguments to quickly earn masses' support.

Due to their own history and ideals many euro nations have often dreamt of 'vox populi' as a method of governance. Post revolution france for example loved it, there was/is something romantic about referendums, we feel we the ppl are finally in the box seat. That's why the Le Pen, Farage and other populists of this world love it. And lazy politicians too as referendums are made for cowards: let 'them' decide so I/my gov doesnt have to take full responsibility.

-2 ( +4 / -6 )

"Most modern day issues are too complex and sensitive for the average burger flipper...."

The worst disasters we face today are the unilateral work of "the experts. " The financial crisis, invasion of Iraq (Wolfowitz, et, al), the Euro currency crisis, stagnation in the West due to globalization and destruction of labor unions.

These blunders were carried out in the interests of the elites. If our policies more reflected the interests of burger flippers, we'd be living in a much better world.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

The outcomes of the majority of referendums have been more beneficial for the people than any politician will ever be.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

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