Referendums

by John Quiggin on April 26, 2004

The problem with, and the virtue of, referendums is that, in the absence of armed guards at the ballot box, you can never be sure of the result. The curious politics of the European Union are such that referendums are of particular importance. The big news at present relates to the twin referendums just held in Cyprus, on the UN plan for reunification, and the commitment by Tony Blair to hold a referendum on the EU ‘constitution’.

The Cyprus outcome was the opposite of the result predicted (and feared) by many until quite recently. The Turkish Cypriots voted for reunification, rejecting the arguments of separatist leader Rauf Dentktash (until recently, an apparent permanent fixture). Meanwhile the voters in the internationally-recognised Greek Cypriot republic voted against, apparently on the basis that they could get a better deal after they are securely inside the EU.

Although disappointing, the result is not nearly as bad as the opposite possibility – continued support for separatism among the Turkish Cypriots, which would have represented a significant challenge to the whole international order and made the admission of Turkey to the EU most unlikely. The manoeuvrings of the Greek Cypriot politicians who undermined support for the deal are simply a standard example of shortsighted hardball politics. They want reunification but have made the judgement that they can extract a better deal once they are in the UN and the Turkish Cypriots are on the outside.

The question naturally arises as to how to react when a referendum goes the ‘wrong’ way. If the right to make choices in a referendum is taken seriously, the voters should not be punished for exercising their right to choose. On the other hand, choices have consequences. The obvious consequence of the choices made at the weekend is that there’s no reason for governments in the EU or outside it to trouble themselves any further with the sanctions that have been imposed on the Turkish Cypriots until now. It would be absurd to recognise the government they have just voted in favor of abolishing, but for all other purposes, the residents of the Turkish portion of Cyprus should be treated as normal members of the international community. As a necessary side effect, the removal of these disabilities will weaken the bargaining position of the Greek Cypriot government next time reunification is discussed, but that’s not the reason for removing them.

Presumably, the judgement made by the Greek Cypriot leaders is that the possession of a single vote in an EU where every member has a veto will be worth more than the sympathy of the international community, including fellow members of the EU. This leads naturally to the second referendum being discussed on the proposed ‘EU constitution’, which would, among other things reduce the scope of such vetos.

After staving it off as long as possible, Tony Blair has finally agreed to hold a referendum in the UK, and he was right to do so. The central problem with the EU is the lack of democratic accountability arising from a structure with a powerless parliament, under which all decisions are effectively made either by the unelected European Commission or by national governments in the Council of Ministers. The solution is either to keep the EU relatively weak and ineffectual, by maintaining national vetos over most issues, or to make the system more like a bicameral legislature, with some form of majority voting in both the Parliament and the Council. The expansion, by introducing lots of new members (including several that have already shown themselves willing to act irresponsibly) makes the first option less attractive, but not necessarily unworkable. The natural consequence of losing automatic national vetos will be to increase concern with the functioning of the Parliament, and this will ultimately promote democratic accountability.

It’s obvious, though, that democracy can’t be promoted by denying it, and it’s therefore highly desirable that the changes should be subject to referendums in any country where there is a strong body of opposition. The UK obviously fits this description.

There are several possible outcomes to such a process. First, somewhat improbably [1], all the referendums could pass, in which case there is no problem. Second, the proposal could be rejected in a few countries on the basis of more-or-less extraneous concerns, as happened with Ireland and the Treaty of Nice. In this case, the referendums can just be held again. Third, the proposal could be rejected in several countries, following a debate that was clearly focused on the main issues (the proposal itself and the general issue of European integration). In that case, it would be time to call a halt, and leave existing arrangements in place for a while. If they produced the predicted problems, voters might be willing to reconsider the issues in a few years time. Otherwise, it would be necessary to scale back the ambitions of the European Project to something more like a Free Trade Area and less like a United States of Europe.

The final case, and the one of most interest for Blair, is the possibility that only one country (the UK is the most likely candidate) rejects the referendum, and that this position is not amenable to change through the holding of a second referendum. In the short run, the probable consequence is a “two-speed” system, with the eurozone being the obvious basis for a core group within which further integration could take place.

In the long run, though, a federation (or, more accurately, a confederation) like the EU must include a mechanism for withdrawal and exclusion as well as for new admissions. If one member is permanently at odds with the others on fundamental issues, that member should be invited to leave. It’s therefore somewhat disingenuous of those advocating a “No” vote to claim that it isn’t a vote against British membership of the EU. Most of those advocating a “No” vote are not concerned with the details of the proposal, but would take the same position on almost any proposal to make a union of 25 countries functional. The ultimate consequence must be either British withdrawal or (if voters in other European countries take the same view) a substantial weakening of the EU.

fn1. This isn’t impossible. All but one (I think) of the new entrants held referendums, and all were successful. So if the stakes are high enough, the likelihood of frivolous or petulant “No” votes is greatly reduced.

{ 17 comments }

1

Dan Simon 04.27.04 at 12:25 am

It’s “referenda”, for pity’s sake! “Referenda”! Aaaargggghh….

2

Thorley Winston 04.27.04 at 12:39 am

Otherwise, it would be necessary to scale back the ambitions of the European Project to something more like a Free Trade Area and less like a United States of Europe.

Which is really all that it should be.

3

Henry 04.27.04 at 12:59 am

From the _Oxford English Dictionary_

bq. In terms of its Latin origin, referendums is logically preferable as a modern plural form meaning ballots on one issue (as a Latin gerund referendum has no plural); the Latin plural gerundive referenda, meaning ‘things to be referred’, necessarily connotes a plurality of issues. Those who prefer the form referenda are presumably using words like agenda and memoranda as models. Usage varies at the present time (1981), but The Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors (1981) recommends referendums, and this form seems likely to prevail.

4

Matt Weiner 04.27.04 at 1:36 am

I assume you mean that you can never be sure of the result before it happens? Here we can’t be sure of the results of our elections even after they happen….

5

Dan Simon 04.27.04 at 2:16 am

Oh, sure–bring up the OED, why don’t you. Talk about argument from authority! Aaaarrrgggh….

Sorry. I’m okay now.

6

Luc 04.27.04 at 2:34 am


Otherwise, it would be necessary to scale back the ambitions of the European Project to something more like a Free Trade Area and less like a United States of Europe.

It is unthinkable that an ambition of over 50 years old, to create a federal Europe, is scaled back to a “free trade area” because of a referendum about a proposed constitution.

From http://europa.eu.int/abc/symbols/9-may/euday_en.htm :


Probably very few people in Europe know that on 9 May 1950 the first move was made towards the creation of what is now known as the European Union.


In Paris that day, against the background of the threat of a Third World War engulfing the whole of Europe, the French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman read to the international press a declaration calling France, Germany and other European countries to pool together their coal and steel production as “the first concrete foundation of a European federation”.

A more likely scenario would be that if a number of countries reject the constitution, it will be renegotiated, and interim solutions will be decided upon in the council of the EU. I doubt that a two-speed solution can be found for the issues dealt with in the proposed constitution.

For the pro/against positions in the UK see:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/eu/story/0,7369,1200402,00.html

7

John Quiggin 04.27.04 at 4:44 am

I’m very happy about this. At one time, I argued strenuously in favour of plurals like “referendums”, and worried about counterarguments based on etymology.

In this post, I’m pleased to say, I wrote “referendums” at least half a dozen times without even recalling that there was another option.

8

Henry 04.27.04 at 4:54 am

In all fairness, Dan, I should admit that it’s a source of some contention among political scientists too (I’ve heard bar-room claims for both sides of the argument)

9

Sebastian Holsclaw 04.27.04 at 8:31 am

“It is unthinkable that an ambition of over 50 years old, to create a federal Europe, is scaled back to a “free trade area” because of a referendum about a proposed constitution.”

Typical.

Lots of long term ambitions end up not working out. And if in this case it doesn’t work out because many of the people in Europe don’t like the direction in which they are being channeled by their leaders, I don’t see the harm.

10

MJ 04.27.04 at 12:19 pm

It is impossible for the EU to revert to a simple free-trade area. Maybe, at a stretch, to a simple customs union. And the harm would be great. Very great indeed.

11

Doug 04.27.04 at 1:48 pm

In re the third point: Except that the present arrangements aren’t working very well for 15 and will barely work at all for 25. Standing still is not a viable option.

It’s also unlikely that the UK would be the one and only ‘no’ vote. The British debate, as far as I can tell, is a bit self-centered — as, in fairness, are almost all of the national debates I have any acquaintance with.

What will the EU do with four or five ‘no’ votes from significant countries? We may get to find out. Referendum season will be big fun…

12

Thorley Winston 04.27.04 at 2:38 pm

Lots of long term ambitions end up not working out. And if in this case it doesn’t work out because many of the people in Europe don’t like the direction in which they are being channeled by their leaders, I don’t see the harm.

Me neither, I supported the notion of a Common Market to allow a freer flow of goods and services across borders (and also to put pressure on curtailing the European Nanny States particularly in industrial policy) but I see only two advantages to trying to create an actual “United States of Europe” or whatever.

First, if the USE member-nations have to begin to assume full responsibility for their own national defense rather than being subsidized by American blood and treasure, it would relieve the United States of an expensive (albeit relatively easy to manage) burden.

Second, if they form one government, then they would presumably have to decrease their number of votes in the United Nations and the Security Council to one.

Other than that, it seems like a bad idea.

13

Luc 04.27.04 at 3:22 pm

The EU has never been only about a common market, or industrial policy. The quote “the first concrete foundation of a European federation” from Robert Schuman, is part of the history of the EU. To scrap this ideal because of a referendum about something else, is not going to happen.

A bit of googling gave me a bit more info.

From the proposed constitution:

Article IV-7 point 3.
If, two years after the signature of the Treaty establishing the Constitution, four fifths of the Member States have ratified it and one or more Member States have encountered difficulties in proceeding with ratification, the matter shall be referred to the European Council.

With the following comment from “The Constitution – reader friendly edition by Jens-Peter Bonde”

Political decision among Prime Ministers if up to 20 % of the Member States fail to ratify within 2 years.

http://www.euabc.com/upload/pdf/draft/rf_constitution_en.pdf

14

Scott Martens 04.27.04 at 6:11 pm

But there is a problem here. There is no agreement of any kind that would both actually be meaningful and could pass a referndum in 25 different countries. I doubt any such agreement could pass in three countries.

Nor is there a real answer in saying that the EU shouldn’t be anything more than a free trade area. I can not recall a single free trade agreement in the history of the entire world surviving a referendum. Had it been the subject of a referendum, there is no chance whatsoever that NAFTA would have come into force. It’s difficult enough to get the corrupt politicians who supported it in the first place to stay behind it when they discover that free trade means they have to lower trade barriers, instead of just having other countries lower them.

No federal state anywhere subjects amendments to its constitution to unanimous passage among any set of constitutents larger than three. Federalism is not possible under those conditions. It is not compatible with a universal veto by referendum. No multilateral system of governance ever could be.

15

Will 04.27.04 at 9:47 pm

Scott

You’re not wrong about the difficulty of passing referenda (leaving aside if this one will be especially difficult because of its content). The reason why referenda have become so important in UK politics (and elsewhere in Europe)is the acknowledgement that within national political systems there is no constraint on national executives making any agreement they want, since neither national parliaments nor national parties will restrain them. That leaves a referendum as the only constraint going. Yes, lots of referenda may be too difficult. But Tony Blair’s (or the average EU PM’s) say-so alone is too easy. If we had real parliamentary constraints and legislative politics in Europe, as in US states, then constitutional change could be meaningfully contested without referenda.

16

greg 04.28.04 at 3:42 pm

And let’s not forget that everybody who’s joined up to this point has signed up to an ‘ever-closer union’. It’s nonsense to say the EU should be no more than a free trade area. Says who?

After all, even the ever truculent Brits signed up to this thirty or so years ago.

As for Thorley’s claims that the only good reasons for the Union becoming a proper federation are that the US would be relieved of the burden of defending Europe, and the loss of a European seat on the UN’s Security Council…

Are these arguments made from a European position? Or an American one? If the latter, why the babbling about what Europe should be? Surely that’s for the Europeans to decide.

And the American defence umbrella is largely a myth anyway. The last SACEUR has openly stated that Europeans should support America’s missile defence plans, as America would be more likely to defend London or Paris from missile attack if they knew that doing so wouldn’t expose New York to attack…

…which shows how much time the American establishment has for NATO’s mutual defence clause.

17

Thorley Winston 04.28.04 at 5:45 pm

greg wrote:

As for Thorley’s claims that the only good reasons for the Union becoming a proper federation are that the US would be relieved of the burden of defending Europe, and the loss of a European seat on the UN’s Security Council…
Are these arguments made from a European position? Or an American one?

My comments were obviously about the advantages to the United States in that it would decrease European voting power in the United Nations and may prove the impetus for relieving the United States of the manageable burden of providing for the military defense of Europe. If you know of any other advantages to the United States in the creation of a European super-State, I am willing to consider them.

If the latter, why the babbling about what Europe should be? Surely that’s for the Europeans to decide.

Granted, however considering that the Europeans, Canadians, Aussies, and others on this forum have never been reluctant to “babble” as to what the United States should do or not do about a particular issue, it seems disingenuous to criticize an American for opining about a European proposal to create what some have admitted is an attempt to build a rival or counter-weighted “super power” to the United States.

And the American defence umbrella is largely a myth anyway.

Not from what I’ve read:

The most obvious benefit to the United States of the proposed EU defense organization is a decrease in the financial burdens that the U.S. now carries for operations in Europe. The United States currently supplies nearly 20% of all peacekeepers in Bosnia and around 15% of the troops in Kosovo. The five year-old Bosnia peacekeeping operation cost the United States an average of $1.8 billion a year between 1995 and 1999. This year, the Pentagon asked for and Congress appropriated another $2 billion for the U.S. contingent in Kosovo. Since both Kosovo and Bosnia are NATO-led operations, the United States, as the leading member of the Alliance, is expected to contribute forces commensurate with its capabilities – an expectation which many in Congress see as an excuse for Europe to do less. Should the EU assume overall responsibility for future peacekeeping in Europe, the United States would not automatically be expected to participate.

The United States also has carried the largest burden in NATO of combat operations in Europe. During the 1999 air war against Yugoslavia, 731 of the 1,058 aircraft involved were American. The cost of the air war to the United States was $5.5 billion. If future combat operations of this nature (“secondary contingencies short of general war”) were carried out under the European Union banner, U.S. forces would not be put at risk and the United States would be spared the direct expense of participating. But it is an open question whether the planned EU force will be willing to carry out more than straightforward peacekeeping operations on the continent. The vaguely formulated “peacemaking” task assigned to the force may or may not include operations at the level of combat intensity of the air war against Yugoslavia.

Source:
http://www.cdi.org/dm/2000/issue4/debunk.html

AFAICT, Europe still relies heavily on NATO for its defense. The inability of European nations to deal with the former Yugoslavia on their own without the United States providing the bulk of the air power, cruise missiles, and a significant cost (although easily manageable to the United States) for ground personnel and funding, demonstrates that they have quite a ways to go to get their military house in order. If a European super-state leads to them assuming a greater share of their defense burden, then it would IMNHO be an advantage to the United States as we would no longer be subsidizing their military at the expense of American blood and treasure.

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