The case for a Europe-wide referendum

Bulletin article
Steven Everts
01 October 2002

It is time for pro-Europeans to face up to the uncomfortable truth that the EU has a serious legitimacy problem. The anti-Europeans' most persuasive claim is that the EU is an elite project over which 'the people' have virtually no influence. 'Brussels', they insist, is power-hungry and out of touch with the concerns of ordinary voters. The counter-argument, that almost nothing in the EU is done without the agreement of democratically elected governments, is true ­ but unconvincing. Similarly, the directly elected European Parliament plays a crucial role in scrutinising EU legislation, but almost no one sees the Parliament as the bulwark of European democracy. Unless and until the citizens of Europe can play a direct role, however small, in shaping the future of the EU, the siren voices of the anti-Europeans will become ever more beguiling and destructive.

Legitimacy, of course, has many sources. Pragmatists argue that as long as the institutions deliver effective policies, people will respect the EU, even if they do not admire or trust it. The EU does need to become more effective ­ but effectiveness is not a substitute for democracy. In the coming years the EU will have to tackle a number of highly political questions on its purpose and institutional design. Ministers and member-states, along with the European Parliament, the Commission and national MPs, must take the lead in answering these questions. But there is also a compelling case for giving a limited, but direct role to the citizens of Europe.

Some member-states have already held referenda on European issues such as EU accession or, in the case of Denmark, membership of the euro. The candidates for the next round of enlargement are planning to hold referenda on the accession treaty. These are all good examples of the direct involvement of citizens in deciding, or ratifying, important European issues. Crucially, there is a direct link between the electorate and the people affected by the outcome of the referendum. If the Poles vote 'no' to accession next year, Poland will not join the EU. But the other candidate countries, which voted in favour of EU membership, would still enter the Union.

However, in the case of the Irish referendum on the Nice Treaty, there is a mismatch between those who vote, the Irish people, and those influenced by the outcome of the vote, the citizens of the present EU plus the accession countries. If the Irish vote 'no' again in late 2002, the Nice treaty will have to be scrapped. Whether this would make the Irish 'bad Europeans' is beside the point. There is much in the Nice Treaty that is objectionable and enlargement may well proceed regardless. But there is something undemocratic about 4 million people deciding the political future of 430 million. A possible Austrian referendum on enlargement would be unacceptable for the same reasons. The rule must be that national electorates should vote on national issues, such as changing the currency or abortion rules, while all Europeans should vote on European issues.

After the 2004 enlargement, the member-states will conclude a round of tough negotiations over the future of Europe ­ perhaps culminating in a new Treaty of Rome. The expectation is that this constitutional treaty will consist of two parts. The first part would set out the EU's primary purpose, along with the fundamental tasks and competences of the institutions. The second would contain detailed provisions on the EU's various policies. The point of splitting the treaties is to streamline future revisions. Changing the second part would no longer involve complex ratification procedures, but rather the unanimous consent of the member-states.

The conclusion of this constitutional treaty will be an extremely important moment in Europe's history. EU governments would be wise to put the first part of the treaty to the people in a Europe-wide referendum. The threshold for the referendum to pass should be higher than 50 per cent, perhaps two-thirds of votes cast. Moreover, to underline that the EU is a union of peoples and member-states, a 'double-majority' would be needed. Concretely, this means that two-thirds of the EU population and two-thirds of the member-states should back the referendum. Clearly, a Europe-wide referendum would not preclude individual governments negotiating opt outs from common policies, such as Denmark has done on European defence, or Britain on the euro.

Some critics will argue that a Europe-wide referendum would tip the balance dramatically in favour of the federalist camp. They will stress that national governments should remain sovereign ­ and add that the idea of a European demos is a chimera. But a Europe-wide referendum should only take place after the member-states have agreed on a new treaty. Thus no country would be forced to accept something that its own government had not previously agreed to. As for sovereignty, it has been self-evident ­ at least since the French revolution ­ that it ultimately rests with the people, not with governments. Finally, organising an EU referendum would in itself encourage the emergence of a pan-European political debate.

Other critics will warn of the risks involved. What if the people of Europe vote 'no'? Of course a referendum defeat would be a huge blow to the EU. But if Europe's leaders cannot win popular support for a constitutional treaty, there must be something seriously wrong with the EU. In that case, political leaders should go back to the drawing board. It is possible that the referendum would pass in the Union as a whole, but that voters in one country would nonetheless reject the treaty ­ in spite of their own government's recommendation. The government in question would be left facing a dilemma. Either it would have to win a second vote within a set time period ­ say two years. Or it would have to re-negotiate its relationship with the EU. In practical terms, this would probably mean accepting memberhip of the European Economic Area ­ like Norway, in the single market but without any say in the setting of its rules ­ or total withdrawal from the EU.

More positively, a 'yes' vote across the Union would have a cathartic effect. It would confirm that EU integration is a profoundly political process. It would give the EU a much-needed boost of self-confidence. And it would kill off, once and for all, the canard that the EU is somehow imposed on people against their will.

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