An expert's point of view on a current event.

Europe Has a Referendum Addiction

How direct democracy went from the rarest of all political procedures to Europeans' bargaining chip of choice.


Maybe the most remarkable fact about the impending decision on Brexit -- a choice of unimaginable consequence and complexity -- is that it's being made in the form of a referendum.

Maybe the most remarkable fact about the impending decision on Brexit — a choice of unimaginable consequence and complexity — is that it’s being made in the form of a referendum.

Even more remarkable is that this is just the latest weighty decision placed directly into the hands of European voters. There was Greece’s referendum on EU bailout terms last summer; the independence vote in Scotland in 2014; and a bevy of lower-profile votes in recent years, in places like Denmark, the Netherlands, and Ireland, on issues including Europol membership arrangements, European Union association agreements, and the European Financial Stabilisation Mechanism.

Europe is clearly in the grip of a sort of referendum mania. What’s less clear is what exactly triggered this deluge of direct democracy — and how to ensure it’s a healthy development.

Politicians didn’t always entrust these sorts of decisions to voters directly. National referendums, up until just a decade or so ago, were rare birds, used almost exclusively to resolve domestic issues: to ratify constitutions and, occasionally, to hand a touchy subject over to voters when governments disagreed internally. Submitting an issue to referendum was a way of agreeing to disagree. These votes covered issues ranging from the trivial to the deeply significant, from driving on the right in Sweden to wage indexation mechanisms in Italy to gay marriage in Ireland and Croatia.

International affairs, by contrast, were the exclusive preserve of diplomats and foreign ministers. Ordinary citizens were not deemed to be knowledgeable enough to decide issues of foreign affairs; meticulously negotiated international treaties weren’t to be submitted to the whims of the public. Famed diplomats like former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and American diplomat George Kennan urged that international affairs be conducted by a “prophetic minority” who understood what was in the best interests of citizens.

Today, however, European governments don’t hesitate to turn over foreign-policy decisions to the citizens themselves. Since 2000, there have been more than 40 referendums on international matters in the EU. In the 1990s, by contrast, there were only 10 and a mere three in the 1980s.

What has changed? On one level, the explanation is simple. European diplomats discovered in the referendum a useful tool for gaining leverage with their peers. By promising to allow citizens to approve treaties, diplomats could win a little bit more bargaining power when negotiating them.

The origins of the referendum as a bargaining tool in foreign affairs can be more or less traced back to the creation of the European Union. Prior to this point, if a country held a referendum on a question that crossed borders, it was typically either because this was a constitutional requirement or because political parties were divided on the issue. This changed in 1992: It was then that the Danish government found, following voters’ rejection of the Maastricht Treaty, which created the EU, it could suddenly drive a much harder bargain. To keep the project of the European Union on track, the Danes effectively forced other European countries to make concessions. The Danes wanted to opt out of the single currency, as well as from cooperation on defense and on home affairs like policing and immigration. With the threat of a “no” vote in a second referendum dangling above other countries’ heads, Denmark got everything it asked for.

Other countries quickly learned a lesson from this episode, and they, too, began to use what had previously been the largely forgotten provisions for referendums buried in their constitutions. When Austria, Finland, Norway, and Sweden began negotiations to join the EU in 1993, they all decided to hold referendums on ratifying the Maastricht Treaty. The Swedes and the Norwegians were able to opt out of the single currency as a result of their referendum brinkmanship, and Finland and Austria were able to get concessions in foreign-policy areas that guaranteed their neutrality in international affairs.

The use of referendum-as-bargaining-tool also made an appearance during negotiations over the European constitution in the early 2000s: The Spanish government, at the time, was concerned that its vote share in the EU’s Council of Ministers was too small under the terms of the proposed constitution. During negotiations, other countries were seemingly not impressed by the arguments — and so then-Prime Minister José María Aznar played his trump card. While claiming to be personally committed to the European constitution, Aznar said he was obliged to hold a referendum and warned his compatriots would be less than enthusiastic about approving it — unless he got his concessions. It was a ploy, but it worked. He succeeded in winning more votes in the Council of Ministers, and the constitution was endorsed by more than 80 percent of Spanish voters in a referendum in February 2005. (Not to be outdone, Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski turned to the same tactics, threatening a referendum unless Poland got a higher vote share; he got the concessions he wanted — and decided not to hold a referendum after all.)

But the desire for diplomatic leverage doesn’t explain the unprecedented frequency with which politicians are resorting to referendums today. The boom in referendums is impossible to understand without first understanding the deeper underlying changes that have recently taken place in how Europe is governed.

We are living in an age where practically all policy issues are international, but this is particularly true in the European Union. Questions on many matters related to the environment, finance, trade, and security are decided via discussions among bureaucrats and politicians in Brussels. Meanwhile, the national politicians involved in this growing number of international negotiations are still accountable to local parliaments and populations that say they feel increasingly alienated from EU bureaucracy. And so governments also find in referendums a convenient demonstration that they care about voter input.

Moreover, governments know the risk of voters ultimately pushing their brinkmanship over the edge is limited. Evidence has shown, in 73 percent of referendums on EU-related matters, voters go along with the positions pushed for by the government. Overall, referendums have proved a useful tool that can be deployed to gain legitimacy, leverage, and to pass the political buck all at the same time.

So proposals for plebiscites continue to come thick and fast — and sometimes cynically, as in February, when Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban threatened to hold one on the EU’s policies for the redistribution of refugees. At the time, Orban waxed idealistic about the need for “the support of the people,” calling referendums “a part of European politics,” and urging other countries also to put EU policies to a vote.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who had previously ruled out any compromises, accommodated Orban, moving to plan B: a complex deal with Turkey to help minimize refugee flows. The Hungarian politician thus lost his newfound interest in direct democracy and stopped talking about the blessings of referendums. To paraphrase the Romantic German poet Friedrich Schiller, “The referendum has done its duty; the referendum can go.”

Is this tactical use of direct democracy legitimate? Does this cynical use — or abuse — of referendums lead to apathy and distrust? Interestingly, surveys suggest the opposite often is the case. Scotland’s referendum on independence is a good example. The annual Scottish Social Attitudes survey showed the number of Scots who say they have either “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of interest in politics rose in the wake of the 2014 referendum on independence. In 2013, before the referendum campaign, only 32 percent were in the “quite a lot” category. Subsequently the figure rose to 40 percent. The referendum made Scotland the most politically engaged part of the United Kingdom.

Politicians may be cynical; they may use the referendum in pursuit of their own narrow interests. This is not surprising. That is the way politics work. But the side effect is that voters, it seems, become less apathetic. Whatever we may think of the outcomes of the referendums, this is a laudable effect, which should be welcomed by all.

Referendums have been criticized for being a recipe for demagoguery and allowing allegedly ill-informed voters to make irrational decisions based on limited or nonexistent information. There is, in fact, little evidence that this is the case. While populist parties often champion referendums, voters rarely back populist policies: The Swiss, for instance, in nine out of 10 cases, voted to approve more liberal immigration policies.

But some words of caution are in order. Referendums are not a magic bullet for resolving problems, and sometimes carrying out on a threat to hold one can turn into a farce. Very few were impressed by the last-minute Greek referendum on the EU bailout in 2015, in which voters rejected the terms of a bailout, in a clear effort to gain leverage on the part of Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras. The vote took place with less than a week of campaigning, and voters had virtually no information about the potential consequences; they said no to the terms, only to have harsher ones handed down to them shortly afterward.

If the referendum is to serve its purpose — that is, effectively expressing the will of the people — it is necessary that voters be given the time and opportunity to discuss the matter at hand and to learn about the pros and cons of voting one way or the other. Democracy, including direct democracy, consists of more than voting. It also comprises discussion and debate.

Dutch voters, fresh off rejecting an EU association agreement with Ukraine, are now signing a petition calling for a referendum on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership deal between Europe and the United States. It’s the sort of vote that, if it moves forward, would require voters to educate themselves on the myriad technical details of an enormously complicated agreement. One would hope those voters, and the experts on either side charged with educating them, prove up to the task — because this is also the sort of vote Europe is only likely to see more of in the future.

Image credit: Foreign Policy/Adam Griffiths

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