Future of Europe

The limits of the Euro-wide referendum

First policies then Constitution?

, by Marko Bucik

All the versions of this article: [English] [français] [italiano]

The limits of the Euro-wide referendum

Since Maastricht in 1992, direct voting on EU issues has been on the increase. Starting off from a very limited number of countries ratifying only major institutional changes through referendums, there has been a wave of membership referendums in 2003 and several actual and announced referendums to ratify the European Constitution.

However, while the majority of current analyses and comments focus on the bad quality of EU communication strategies and of national politicians, a more institutional look is needed on why direct democracy should be of major interest to the federalists. Most interestingly, our attention should turn towards de-mystifying the Euro-wide referendum and accepting some of its downsides.

The theory behind direct involvement in general, is not only linked to the EU. What is often contested is the move of legislative outcomes towards the so called “median voter”, (defined as a fictional person that supports a wide range of policies which win the vote). When political parties plan or enter a referendum campaign on a specific issue, knowledge about what the “median voter” thinks is the key to victory.

Asking the right question(s)

All of this is of course very straight-forward, but to a certain extent misleading. A vast majority of issues in the mind of the voter overlap and individuals are ready to trade their preferences on an issue with preferences on another issue. There are only few questions really that we can answer with a yes or no; e.g. Swedes were asked to vote on whether cars in their country should drive on the left or right. Is there any other than these two alternatives? No, and this means that such an issue is certainly more adequate to be decided in a referendum than the fate of a 300 page long treaty which itself includes many corrections to an already complicated institutional framework for international cooperation.

Three consequences of asking the wrong question come out as strongest: wide-spread misunderstanding, a campaign that is at risk of political populism and a result that could lead to possible tensions in the society. And while the first two can be managed by good political campaigning, high educational standards, moderate behaviour of political parties, the third one should remain a source of major concern to European federalists.

The non-existence of a unified demos in fragmented societies can lead to tensions when the instrument of referendum is used to set in stone the rules upon which the society will be governed. Taking a look at the EU, we might find some parallels. While European peoples might come to understand the importance and benefits of the abolishment of unanimity in certain policy areas, strong resistance exists when trying to gather understanding on the common rules and procedures. A resistance that, like the negative results in France and the Netherlands should not be ignored.

Policies decided by referenda?

The slow incremental approach to European integration has resulted in sufficient beneficial results to prove that cooperation on the European level makes sense. So why not introduce Euro-wide direct democracy here? A policy option would only need the majority of Europeans to come into force, but would leave out those who voted with a majority against. This could well be suggested for a future EU Foreign Minister, common Energy Policy etc.

The difference between this option and a Constitutional settlement through a Euro-wide direct vote is the fact that the latter is more permanent than a policy decision and is more substantial in the sense that it leaves minorities permanently isolated. By doing so it runs the danger of enforcing a set of rules and creating distinct political groups.


If we are to make the best use of the emerging rise of direct democracy in the EU and the possible method of a Euro-wide referendum, we should look into possible policy areas where Europeans should have a say, instead of promoting the Euro-wide referendum on the (next) Constitution above everything else. The possible misinterpretation of the European median-voter and the reflection on possible tensions in the European society should make us aware of its pitfalls. Of course, many will argue, there might well be no better way to save the Constitution…


* source: Flickr

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