AGAINST EU Referendums
Referendums are a demagogue’s dream. They allow popularist politicians to sidestep complex issues and concentrate on scaremongering. Fears of Polish plumbers dominated France’s 2005 rejection of the European Constitution while abortion loomed large in Ireland’s 2008 “no” vote on Lisbon, even though the treaty had nothing to say about it.
The European Union has 502 million citizens. Just 109,964 Irish votes prevented them getting a better functioning, more democratically accountable EU. That was the winning margin for the “no” vote in the Lisbon Treaty referendum. National referendums on EU questions are fundamentally undemocratic by allowing tiny minorities to dictate to the majority.
3. TOO COMPLEX
Would you ask José Manuel Barroso to fix your car, Mario Monti to do you a perm or Angela Merkel to fill your root canal? So why ask mechanics, hairstylists, or dentists to do the highly complex work of running the EU? Leave it to professionals. The man or woman in the street has neither the time nor the inclination to read hundreds of pages on permanent structured cooperation or fiscal compacts, so why ask them to make the decisions? That’s what we pay our politicians for.
4. DISRUPTIVE PROTEST VOTES
Voters bemused by complex EU issues use referendums for protest votes against the government of the day. Positive developments get blocked for no good reason. Disgruntled Greek voters may well have rejected the “haircut” on sovereign debt if the referendum had gone ahead last year, even though it was the only way to keep their economy afloat and prevent euro-zone chaos. Referendums are too disruptive, dangerous and inefficient for modern-world policy making.
FOR EU Referendums
1. GIVE THE PEOPLE A VOICE
EU policies that impact on 500 million people are drawn up by distant, un-elected bureaucrats, validated in ministerial meetings dominated by a few powerful nations and rubber stamped by MEPs. Referendums give the people a voice, allowing them to impose directly democratic checks and balances on the shift of power to Brussels. Fearful leaders resist referendums because they know the people have had enough of integration – hence the refusal to give British voters a chance to get out of the EU.
2. LEGITIMIZE EU POLICY
More referendums would serve to legitimize European integration. Instead of citizens feeling alienated by the decisions of faceless officials in Brussels, referendums would give polices the stamp of popular approval. Witness Switzerland where direct democracy is at the heart of a thriving federal system. Voters would feel more attached to Europe and its policies if they were given a chance to shape them.
3. BRIDGING THE GAP BETWEEN BRUSSELS AND THE PEOPLE
Many Europeans neither know, nor care, what’s going on in Brussels. Apathy with mainstream politics is a growing problem reflected in falling voter turnout and support for extremists. Just 43 percent bothered to vote in the last European Parliament elections, a figure that fell to below 25 percent in some countries. Referendum campaigns can energize public opinion and make sure citizens are fully informed about EU policies. With eight EU referendums since voting to join in 1972, there can be little doubt that Irish citizens know most about Europe.
4. BETTER POLICIES
By imposing truly democratic checks and balances on politicians’ and bureaucrats’ decisions referendums produce policies that better reflect the needs of ordinary people. Few citizens in Europe were interested in the flag, anthem and other trappings of statehood which the European Constitutional Treaty would have imposed. Instead thanks to French and Dutch voters rejecting it in 2005, Europe got a more streamlined, practical working blueprint in the Lisbon Treaty.