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Time to get this referendum folly right

, by Francesco Nicoli

Once upon a time in the EU, many believed that direct democracy would have helped solving Europe’s integovernmental quagmire. Well, even if you didn’t like integovernmentalism, this looks much worse. European democracy appears to have a structural problem, highlighted in a painful way by the Dutch referendum on the Ukraine association agreement.


The Dutch referendum exemplifies and magnifies this problem. The Netherlands is a country of 16 Millions people, of which about 70% have voting rights; 11.2 millions voters. Of them, only 32% showed up to the referendum: 3,5 millions people voted. Of them, 64% voted against the common foreign policy decision of the EU: 2,3 millions of votes against. The EU has 500 millions citizens; in other words, 0,45% of the EU population expressed a veto. Now, let’s imagine that each state- including, for example, the tiny Duchy of Luxembourg- passed similar norms on referenda, as it is in their sovereign right to do. We would easily find out that, in the current system, 61.000 people (the 51% of the 30% of the 70% of the Luxembourg population) become a veto player. In other words, the current system ensures that 0,012% of the EU population could veto a foreign policy decision.

No wonder that no policy could ever, ever being effective in such framework. Moreover, if by any hazard, such framework would be extended to other domains- for example national laws implementing EU directives- this would represent the end of the EU. This referendum folly has to end, because it looks like “democracy”, but in fact it constitutes democracy’s very opposite: it represents a genuine dictatorship of the smallest minorities; a dictatorship without appeal, because it is expressed through voting. I don’t know the term to use to define a situation where, potentially, 61.000 people can dictate their will to 500.000.000 people, but for sure, “democracy” is the wrong term.

Now, referenda are supposed to strengthen the democratic profile of a decision; in the current framework, however, referenda destroy democracy instead. The EU therefore faces a dilemma on democracy: we need to find a way to maintain the people’s voice on decisions undertaken by leaders, but in doing so we need to ensure that the fundamental democratic principle- aka majority voting- is respected. One way would be to ensure that, at least, intergovernmental decisions stay intergovernmental; this would still be a democratic failure, but one we are used to, and one that ensures equal footing to all member-states regardless of how big or small they are. This is deeply unsatisfactory for true democrats like myself, who always distrusted and blamed intergovernmentalism; but maybe it’s about time we acknowledge that there’s worse things out there.

Then there is the other solution, the one we would all prefer; to put it simply, if European issues are at stake, then referenda are fine as long as they are European referenda. National referenda for national policies, European referenda for European policies. If it sounds reasonable, it’s because, indeed, it is reasonable. And God knows how much the EU needs to be a beacon of light and reason in these crazy times.

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Article reproduced with permission of the author. The original can be found here