Military intervention can be unpopular. From the 2003 invasion of Iraq, to bombing missions against the so-called Islamic State in Syria, the decision to commit the armed forces of a country can be one of the most divisive issues in politics. But is military action sometimes necessary to keep a society safe, even in the face of protests and public disapproval?

Should citizens have more say over controversial foreign policy decisions? Or is it up to elected representatives to make decisions (even unpopular ones) if it supports the greater good?

In April 2016, the Netherlands will hold a referendum on an EU Association Agreement with Ukraine. The results of the referendum are not binding on the government, but could pressure them to resubmit the deal (which is supposed to bring Ukraine further into the EU’s sphere of influence and away from Russia) to parliament. Is this move towards giving the public a greater say on individual policies via referendums a positive one?

Former NATO Secretary General (2004-2009), Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, recently wrote an analysis piece for our partner think-tank, Friends of Europe. He believes that technological advances mean a new, more collaborative model of security is needed for the 21st Century. We recently received a question from Andrej, who asked what “listening to, including, and empowering” citizens in foreign policy means in practice. Does it mean more referendums, such as the Dutch referendum on Ukraine?

We put his question to Jaap de Hoop Scheffer. How would he respond?

jaap-de-hoop-schefferI would say that we definitely do not need more referendums, because it is never about the question at hand, but always a vote on the government. So I’m very much against them, and we don’t know them in the Netherlands.

What happens is that too often the traditional political parties in the middle leave the debates on any subject to the flanks, the political margins. That means that the left and the right – and the extreme from time to time – control the debate. I think it’s the responsibility of Europe’s “middle of the road parties” – the big Social-Democratic parties, the Liberals, and the Christian Democracy to be more proactive in framing and controlling the debate.

Want to learn more about citizen involvement in foreign policy decision making? Check out our infographic below (click for a bigger image):

Foreign_policyAnother way that citizens can register their discontent with government policy is through petitions. For example, a recent petition on calling for an EU ban on arms sales to Saudi Arabia has collected over 740,000 signatures, and declared victory after the European Parliament voted in favour of a ban. The vote, however, was non-binding on EU Member States, so arms sales will presumably continue unabated. We had a comment sent in from Petio arguing that non-binding petitions are frustrating, because politicians can simply ignore them.

To get a reaction to Petio, we spoke to Alex Wilks, Campaign Director at Avaaz. Don’t politicians just ignore petitions?

We also had a comment from Oliver, who argued that it is perfectly right for politicians to ignore public opinion. He believes that acting against popular opinion can be very much in the public interest, and that the very purpose of representative democracy is that sometimes tough decisions have to be made on our behalf (as long as those making the decisions are still ultimately accountable, because they have to seek re-election). How would Alex Wilks respond?

Should citizens be more involved in foreign policy decisions? Or is it up to elected representatives to make decisions (even unpopular ones) if it supports the greater good? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below, and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!

IMAGE CREDITS: CC / Flickr – David Martyn Hunt

67 comments Post a commentcomment

What do YOU think?

  1. avatar
    Bart Van Damme

    Citizens should have more say in politics as a whole. If we were a democracy, the question would not have to be asked, and referenda would actually be binding.

  2. avatar
    Ivan Giankovits

    Of course they should listen to the people, WHO say that this political don’t represent the richs people agenda!!! If they deside and act is like fasism , and that’s not the European values we represent !!! Europe is not united, every one react forst for them selves and then for Europe!!!! You can se how we are in the financial crise, immigrants and how easy we lose working writes!!!

  3. avatar
    Xavier Gaspar

    That’s UElike. Should citizens actually make important decisions in a democracy? Well, if Europe is democratic… I guess so

  4. avatar
    Rozalija Baricevic

    The EU foreign policy is more than controversial. Many wrong and damaging decisions have been made without consulting the citizens. Democracy mustn’t be illusion but a vision.

  5. avatar
    Paul X

    Of interest is the comment by DE.. “the decision to commit the armed forces of a country can be one of the most divisive issues in politics”

    Take note those who continually cry out on here for a single European Army….multiply the “divisive issues” by 28 countries, each with their own agenda, and as I have said many times before, an EU army will never be deployed.
    Marching behind a blue flag to the sound of Beethoven and taking the salute of el-presidente Junky will be their only purpose…of course the EU Elite will lap it up

    • avatar
      Tarquin Farquhar

      @Paul X
      Bravo, well said!

      What a truly dreadful picture you paint.

      What is worse is that city-states like Luxembourg have the same clout as say the UK or Germany. The monstrously undemocratic EU supports the privilege of small nations over the big countries-cum-net-payers such as aforementioned.

      Worse still, is that some EU nations class themselves as pacifist [like Ireland] even though not only do other EU nations indirectly prop up their [non-existent] defence but too when the faecal matter coincides with the artificial vortex then pacifism will go straight through the window!

      Direct democracy WRT foreign policy decisions only works if the demos is not significantly hampered by basketcase culture and corruption.

      Unfortunately, there are far too many such types in too many EU countries for me to support what should be a good thing.

    • avatar
      Paul X

      Is this the same dumb people who elect the politicians who make the foreign policy decisions?

  6. avatar

    Should citizens be more involved in foreign policy decisions?

    Citizens should be more involved in anything affecting their lives, not only in foreign policy decisions. Why ? Because the citizens and not the (temporary) deciders are paying the price ultimately. Opinion polls or petitions are not referendums (are they?) and Democracy, Freedom, Fundamental Rights and Civil Liberties doesn’t come cheap.

  7. avatar
    Larry Lart

    Yes, any major decision which results in a significant drainage of the budget/tax payer should involve a referendum/vote. Even more when it comes to military interventions which could have a long time impact on security and foreign relations.

    And since time is of the issue and some of these cases, implement for once online/electronic voting, collecting signatures to trigger a referendum is both time consuming and expensive.

    And don’t tell me that online/internet voting is not feasible – most people now have smart phones and internet access, voting online(say supplemented by say a few electronic voting machines) can be implemented both fast and cheap (a fraction of the cost of standard election).

    As for possible fraud, online payments have been around for two decades and the fraud volume, if it were to be translated that in a voting system, will be the equivalent of 2-3 votes for a medium size population – which is way below the fraud you are getting in the traditional voting system. And, online payments, in my opinion, are weak in terms of security, there are way better methods that could used to secure a voting system.

  8. avatar
    Ivan Burrows


    Nationally they already do at the ballot box, the problem comes when the unelected European commission & its rubber-stamping European Parliament takes decisions both above the people and above the ‘elected’ government of the people.

  9. avatar
    Andrej Němec

    I believe direct democracy could work, provided that citizens are well informed on the topic. An idea could be online voting, prior to which an online test about the topic should be passed. The scoring of the test could represent a coefficient to apply to the vote of the single person, in order to weight his/her vote according to the knowledge of the subject. When voting on an important foreign policy decision, the vote of a Government & Foreign Affairs Professor at University should be weighted more than the one of a farmer. Obviously it would be the other way around when voting on agricultural matters.

  10. avatar
    Antonios Forlidas

    Is this a real European Union of the Enlightnment, the Ideals, the Human values the Democracy, or we are an endless Brothel?

  11. avatar
    Dóris Cavalcanti

    I want people to be properly informed of the total amount spent helping other countries and refugees in Europe to us, workers-taxpayers, make conscious decisions how we want our taxes to be spent. EU has played slobbery cards over and over misguiding naive people. Specially now that I know for sure that EU and multiculturalism are en experiment with our lives according to high representative Federica Mogherini – EU/EEAS:
    “Europe is the more advanced EXPERIMENT of living together”

    Since the beginning of the 90’s, after all this time paying so high taxes to finance EU politicians’ dishonest vain illusions, they just delivered this dangerous chaos today because they take our lives as experiments in a laboratory. They play with our lives, that are very different of theirs, and this is why they think that there is a “SUNNY SIDE THAT IS EXCITING TIMES” as Madam Federica declares.
    They have played with our lives and the future of our children! They have been arrogant to think that a bunch of politicians knows best what is the best to the entire world. Their philosophical illusions are becoming nightmares, the world has worsened according to UN despite all the xx-millions of billions EU-UN have taken from our taxes turning us into slaves to finance their uppish experiments seeking for power.

    • avatar
      EU reform- proactive

      “Innocent Multiculturalism”- meaning Islam- in Christian or Atheistic Europe has failed- is mutual exclusive and a catastrophe. Those like Federica Mogherini & the whole EC- in need of such experience must spend their Euros and their holidays in an Islamic Republic, Saudi Arabia, Somalia or wherever they can live out their “Multi Kulti” dream & adventure and NOT invite mio Islamic indigenous to Europe on a permanent basis!

      Instead of getting ever deeper knotted into this EU political quagmire- the future approach should be to investigate a more superior E-urope option (by the social, economic stable, equal, enlightened & willing)- based & grouped by consent on the modern “World Happiness index”- not on present EU treaties, enlargement & enforced (un)happines:

      * Form a think tank how best to reconstruct & design a new EU model- NOT based on old, outdated WWII fear philosophies.
      * Form a leading “happy” core (from the ~10 happiest ranked European nations)
      * Exit (trade-yes) & get socially & politically “disengaged” from the unwanted EU.

      Analyse if the principle of EU “competitive advantage” really benefited Europe, or only global corporate’s, China & others- and by how much?

  12. avatar
    Guido Blokken

    before europe allows turkey to be a member they should have a referendum,in all countrys of europe, 90% will vote NO

  13. avatar
    Rosana Angelelli

    Citizens can register their discontent with government policy through some petitions, for example, fhat on to ban on arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

  14. avatar
    A.c. Spyred

    If the idea behind the question is Turkey problem, I would say the parlement have to decide and not the counsel…

  15. avatar
    EU reform- proactive

    Since foreign and security policy decisions is a complex affair- as per Lisbon treaty- all 28 EU heads of state are participants and the ultimate decision-making body is the European Council- how can such question be considered as not deceitful?

    The EC (all 28 head of States) meets 4x times a year- how can & will the EU/EC/28 Head of States plus its puppet the “High Representative” Federica Mogherini attend to, include and juggle the opinions of the “handful” 500mio less those who have no opinion?

    In all honesty the EC via DE is in no sincere position to raise questions like this and kindle any (higher) democratic hope in voters because they are:


  16. avatar
    Winston Zhang

    YES. So far EU’s Foreign Policy is just a copy of US Foreign Policy. It has been a disaster. Syria comes to mind.

    • avatar
      EU reform- proactive

      Compromised throughout (late) colonial history, leading “French EU member” & Merkel’s Treaty comrade- remains morally challenged! Unperturbed by all existing EU Human Right laws; they merrily poker around, deal with double hands, making double deals, doubling up and exchange & play “d’Honneur” marbles- like in good old juvenile times- exploring some desert sandpits.

      There want be any space for ordinary voters to get involved in EU foreign policy- rarely even in local referendums to either leave or stay- so- don’t miss the chance!

  17. avatar
    Stephanie Morgan

    Absolute YES! People should be consulted for any major changes i in the foreign policy for it’s the people who will live with the change and decision! As far as we can recall, Europe is still in democracy and not the dictatorship and fascism as Middle East and communist countries have! This is not even a question unless the EU bureaucrats wants to exercise dictatorship!

  18. avatar
    Toni Muñiz

    More say? We should have the only say! We are not asked about anything. Those making decisions do so in other interest which are not those of Europeans. What can you expect from corrupt politicians who only fill their pockets and lie every couple years to get a vote.

  19. avatar
    Su La

    It’s too late…empress Merkel and Turkey controlled ruined Europe

  20. avatar
    catheine benning

    When citizens in my country were taken into account over the first Syrian war, the Commons vote went against war.

    The people, meaning the citizen, always pay a high price in the wars of politicians, be it with their money or their life. Result, war is only ever used with reluctance when you seek the wisdom of those men and women. You see there is no bunker for the ordinary man. Therefore, they have the only reference that matters and therefore the only opinion that is paramount.

  21. avatar
    Alexander Simon

    Foreign policy is another but a very important policy field: First of all it must be clear whether we refer to the foreign policy of a member state or of the EU as a whole. The question leaves that open probably assuming that the Union has a shared foreign policy which is definitely not the case. So the first debate should be about the foreign policy agenda of the EU and according institutions and agencies. This already will be a very complex debate (and probably that’s the reason why it has not been held so far) as for instance neutral members such as Austria would be “unified” with NATO members. One now could vote to leave foreign policy to the member states – however due to the mutual aid act (can be derived from the treaty of Maastricht) that is not sufficient as this could impose respective duties on neutral members to aid NATO members supporting a US operation (for instance UK supporting the US in Iraq). So there is urgent need for the debate that I suggested above. Such a blue print for a joint foreign policy needs to take into account the sovereign’s role who is financing all the interventions as tax-payer. Furthermore foreign policy often argues to enforce European values around the world. Lacking of a unified doctrine and lacking of a clear set of values supported EU wide by the sovereign leaves that a quite weak argument – which is noticed outside the EU and weakens EU’s foreign policy.

  22. avatar

    Was Mogherini even elected by the people of the EU?
    Why did Nato attack Libya – did Libya attack EU?
    Why does Nato play war games to train against attack from Russia – does Russia play war games to practice attacking EU?
    Attacks, such as Brussels, are revenge for EU’s foreign policies and Nato is an extension of these foreign policies.

  23. avatar
    Luchian Melnic Dumitrache

    And they speak of democracy while they are ramming their chest stating as leaders they should ignore the will of the slaves they rule above

  24. avatar
    Borislav Valkov

    There are certain issues that are unsaportvie by the people:like wars. If someone attacks a NATO member it’s an attack over the entire alliance so the people shouldn’t have the right to leave the attacked state without support. So in question regarding international affairs that have contracts with must-do clauses it’s ok to dissregard the people. But forcing policy without the peoples will like the refugee crysis: NOT OK!

  25. avatar
    Andrej Němec

    The common people are often too ignorant for having a saying on important issues. The problem is, politicians are also too often ignorant about issues they are called to decide upon. A better involvement of expertise would instead greatly benefit the management of the State, with no or lees need to involve the general public on decisions they’re not capable to take.

  26. avatar
    Lin Figueiredo

    If politicians can ignore public opinions, then it must have a filter to select who can vote. Ignorant people can vote, then ignorant opinions must be heard too.

  27. avatar
    Tamás Csiszár

    There are very few cases when “popular opinion” and “national interest” plays a role. Major cases (immigration crisis, the panama document leaks), revealed that there are either corporate or individual interests. People -incl. corporates, either want to hold to their positions at all costs (example Brussels politicians and state leaders) or maintain market interest.
    So already most of the acts Europe is doing against popular opinion and explained as an act of security.

  28. avatar
    Sebastien Chopin

    Well considering Brussels politicians are put in place by nationally elected polticians, that the commission only proposes laws following demands from national politicians which are then ratified by the elected EP and council (of elected ministers) before being retranscribed into national laws thus completing the circle… I fail to see how that differs from when a prime minister or president is elected back home and then he/she nominates his mates (who are not elected) as national ministers… (except in Belgium where politics are a bit…. special cos you get to vote for everyone simultaneously)…so this is really a non issue as it stands…and so is the loss of sovereignty… (+ the fact that all this only accounts for about 3% of national laws…)
    I would say that in the case of the EU… these laws are more disinterested than back home where they clearly play a major part in reelection and keeping people quiet… on populist grounds…
    Why people would prefer to be told what to do (like Ivan) rather than being free to choose (like me) beats me…
    There is a huge difference between ruling and populism…
    The latter can only bring down the first…(historically that has always been the case… and we are far too wise to imagine we can do better than our predecessors)
    The problem with populist opinion is that no opinion is in reality from the people… its either one or the other politicians attempt to gain power… so its always better to choose the lesser evil… (Farrage, Ivan and their ideas for example, are the British equivalent to IS)..
    Popular would be to shoot the bloody lot… and put in place a real direct non representative democracy… as we should have in the XXI… for the continent which at the end of the day is the cradle of modern civilisation…
    I guess I like freedom too much… :-D

  29. avatar
    Vinciane Sablon

    In a democracy we should trust our political representatives we elected. And so I agree with Oliver and former SecGen NATO that sometimes the politics should dare to take tough decisions even against the public opinion’s position. However in reality what do we see too often, politics who are thinking at the next elections and at their personal survival and their party’s and so they take (if they take) political decisions regarding FP in function of the Domestic politics (so the low lead the high politics) by lack of political courage regarding the results of pools and so on… So yes if we would have real politicians who fight for the good of the nation and of course of the EU. So we should have more supra national decision making process in FP or more generally speaking regarding our Security and less based on intergovernmental process…but what do we find as politicians at EU level…almost the same as at the national level… and the employees of the Commission they do not represent the EU citizens.. so what do we must do? the question stay open

    • avatar

      Politicians no longer represent voters , they represent political parties , and are manipulated by the financial and business sectors who use lobbying and money to get what they want .

  30. avatar
    Rita Cahull

    Europe Is A State control freaks who dictate and try to Control the World, Ireland defeated them on all Referendums, regards to EU setting up rigged Votes, but all Referendums Were defeated and hopefully the Irish people will destroy Europe for Good, The Irish people Hate Europe leaders they are mafia controlled corrupt terroroist, Ireland never ever Wanted to be in Europe, unfortunate we have Corrupt irish bribed politicians who were sell their own granny to Satan, Just Like European Scum Leaders

  31. avatar

    But the problem is that the EU Commission and many other organisations within the EU have appointed leaders and members , and the refusal of referendums for important decisions proves that Europe is becoming communist , and that politicians no longer represent voters

  32. avatar
    Kevin Masters

    Shouldn’t politicians be held criminally accountable for foreign policy decisions that go disastrously wrong, such as the Iraq war? So what if they don’t get re-elected? That’s not exactly the kind of accountability that changes anything.

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