Europe should vote
Sep 25th 2003
From The Economist print edition
Why referendums on a new constitution would be good for the European Union
FRANÇOIS MITTERRAND, France's late president, once remarked that if you ask a specific question in a referendum you will always get an answer to a completely different one. Many top European politicians, who share Mitterrand's devotion to European unity, also share his suspicion of referendums. European issues, they argue, are too complex and too easily distorted to be subjected to so fickle a procedure. A German official argues that if the Treaty of Rome, which started the process of European integration in 1957, had been put to a vote, “Germans might have rejected it because it raised the price of bananas.”
The dangers of referendums are much on the minds of European politicians at the moment. On October 4th, the heads of government of the EU's 25 current and future members will meet in Rome to start discussing a draft constitution for the Union. But there is a looming fear that the whole exercise may ultimately be futile. Several countries have announced that they will have referendums on any new constitution. If even one of 25 refuses to ratify it, the constitution would be legally dead. If several countries voted against, it would be politically impossible to revive it. According to the European Commission, Denmark, Ireland, Portugal, the Netherlands and Spain will definitely hold votes. Finland, France and Italy are thinking about it, as are several of the central European newcomers. The chances of a rejection, somewhere, have just been underlined by a referendum in Sweden on whether to join Europe's single currency. The result was a decisive no. Shaken by this experience, many EU partisans regard calls for referendums on the constitution as a barely disguised wrecking exercise.
This argument is not only cynical but also unwarrantedly defeatist. It is simply not true that all European referendums are doomed to be lost. On the same day that Sweden voted no to the euro, Estonia became the eighth country this year to vote in favour of joining the EU. Latvia followed suit a week later. All the central European referendums on EU accession have been won by crushing margins. Cynics might argue that poor countries from the former Soviet block have little option but to say yes. But rich Ireland also voted yes in a European referendum last year. Having rejected the Nice treaty of 1999 once, the Irish reversed course in a much more keenly debated second referendum in October last year. The pro-Nice camp in Ireland had always argued that many of the opposition's arguments were “scare tactics” or misrepresentations. When they actually exerted themselves to make this case, they won. Defenders of the European constitution should take heart. They too argue that the text drawn up by a constitutional convention in Brussels has been crudely misrepresented as the death of the European nation-state. In a referendum campaign they would have many months to press home their argument. The Irish experience suggests that they might even win.
In any event, regardless of the result, referendums on European issues serve a vital democratic purpose. Politicians and civil servants in Brussels spend a lot of time searching for ways to “bring Europe closer to the people”. The Irish and Swedish experiences show that referendums are the best way—possibly the only way—to achieve this. For a jaded observer from Brussels it was oddly heartening to get into a taxi in Dublin at the height of the referendum campaign and be treated not to the usual moans about traffic and football but to an expletive-filled tirade against article 133 of the Nice treaty. In a politer, more Nordic way the Swedes also had an intense debate about the euro. The constraints of Europe's stability-and-growth pact, which limits government borrowing, are normally debated only by economists and Brussels nerds. Yet in Sweden, you heard ordinary people discussing the impact of the pact on the Portuguese welfare state.
In normal circumstances, public indifference to EU issues is entirely understandable. People believe, rightly, that such issues are usually decided far away, and above their heads. But give ordinary people a chance to have a say, and the Swedish and Irish experiences show that the great unwashed are perfectly capable of a proper debate about Europe. Recent experience also shows that a standard argument against referendums—that elected politicians can represent the views of their voters—is questionable when it comes to European issues, where the professional political class is often totally out of tune with public opinion. Ministers from governments who have to attend regular meetings in Brussels often develop reciprocal loyalties to colleagues from other EU countries and gradually accept the logic of the “European project”. Doubtless, this mutual understanding is a fine thing in many ways. But it does mean that EU deals—over the constitution, for instance—that seem necessary and inevitable to professional politicians often fail to convince the voters back home. If those deals keep on being made, regardless of what the folks back home think, the EU will lose its democratic legitimacy.
Some of the more candid and thoughtful advocates of a federal Europe have begun to admit this and to argue for referendums. Pascal Lamy, a European commissioner from France and a self-declared “militant” believer in European unity, argues that holding a referendum on the EU constitution in France is the only way to counteract a growing French Euroscepticism and to “renew the marriage contract between the French and the construction of Europe.” Many Liberal Democrats, from Britain's most “pro-European” party, have joined Eurosceptic Tories in calling for a referendum. Even Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, the chairman of the convention that produced the draft, has made favourable noises about referendums, despite the risk that they might destroy his work. Such advocates of European unity have appreciated a simple truth. If a European government is to be created, it can only be with the consent of the governed.
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