A Swiss People's Party (SVP) poster during the 2010 referendum on immigration - foreigners? referendum! (Photo: Shoe200)

The legitimacy issue with referendums

While Europe seems to be crazy about referendums lately, the Swiss, the only country with a direct democracy, are increasingly limiting referendums. Introducing direct democracy is one of the core demands of many populist parties across the EU, such as the Alternative für Deutschland, UKIP or the Sweden Democrats. They claim that the political establishment is out of touch with the public and a “safety net”, as Nigel Farage calls it, is needed.

by the Know Nothing Enquirer   02/06/2016

Recent nationwide referendums have covered (and will cover) extremely complex issues. They were used to decide on independence issues (e.g. Scotland, Catalonia or Crimea), bailout conditions (Greece 2015), immigration (Switzerland 2014 and Hungary 2016) or even gay marriage (Croatia 2013). Most countries joining the EU held referendums, but no country apart from Britain has ever held one on exiting the union (Greenland withdrew from the EEC after a 1982 referendum). In less than a month Britain will hold its second EU exit referendum.


While direct democracy might seem like the purest form of democracy and the best way to legitimise important issues, in reality it is far from perfect. Voter turnout is often low, meaningful deliberations are often absent, organisers can manipulate the outcome (e.g. through the framing of the question) and minority interests are rarely taken into account. Critics of referendums and plebiscites believe that important policy decisions need a rational deliberation process that is only possible by a representative government. Decisions should not be made by one’s instincts but rather after a careful discussion by experts, i.e. by MPs in parliament.


Of course there are also other arguments for more direct involvement of the electorate. Anger at the “governing elite” and political apathy is on the rise throughout Europe. Only 42.5% of Europeans voted in the 2014 European Parliament elections, with huge regional discrepancies. Only 13.1% of Slovakians, 23.8% of Poles and 35.6% of Brits (with eurosceptic parties gaining most seats in all three countries) exercised their right to vote for arguably the most important institution for EU citizens. And not only countries on the fringes of Europe voted for eurosceptic parties - the Front National in France won most of the French MEP seats.

Advocates of direct democracy argue that it engages disappointed citizens. However, often voter turnout is below the required threshold, they are very costly (the recent Italian referendum on offshore oil rigs cost €300m) and lead to incoherent policies (e.g. the immigration referendum in Switzerland violates bilateral treaties with the EU). Most policy choices are treated isolated in referendums, yet they are often embedded in a greater context that is highly complex. Who really understands what leaving the EU really entails? 


Surely there are legitimate instances where the people should be directly involved, such as important national questions or for local issues (e.g. on organising the Olympic games or turning an airport into a park). However, even referendums on independence (especially unsuccessful ones) fail to settle these issues. After the Scottish independence referendum, membership of the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP) has significantly increased from 25,000 to over 110,000 people. Not exactly a sign that the issue is settled. Further, adding to the complexity of the Brexit decision, the SNP leadership has announced a second independence referendum would be held if the country were to be “dragged out of the European Union”. 

Wording is also crucial and can make a huge difference. The UK electoral commission has chosen a neutral question with clear answers (remain or leave, instead of yes or no). The Hungarian government, on the other hand, is planning to hold a referendum on “Do you agree that the European Union should have the power to impose the compulsory settlement of non-Hungarian citizens in Hungary without the consent of the National Assembly of Hungary?”. Not a good start for a deliberate decision on a significant EU policy.  


So is it irresponsible of David Cameron to let the British people decide on such a complicated matter as the EU referendum? Richard Dawkins believes “it is an outrage that people as ignorant as me are being asked to vote”. David Mitchel does not think “a political party has any business existing if it can’t agree a policy on this.” According to the Economist, “direct democracy is fine for things that don’t matter, such as the Eurovision song contest. But it is no way to run a country, let alone a continent.”

Indeed, as pointed out in an earlier article on Brexit, both campaigns run highly emotional and misleading campaigns, labelling economic predictions as facts and scaremongering the public with horror scenarios. Most people will have decided already on how they will vote. Not because of a deliberate public debate but rather because of their eurosceptic or europhile instincts. The emotional battle held at the moment aims to win over the undecided or those who do not care enough to vote (although Leave’s anti-immigrant focus might scare off moderates). The polls suggest that the outcome will be an extremely close call and, therefore, the contested voters will likely decide the outcome. 


One might argue that David Cameron did not really have a choice and was pressured into the referendum by populist from his own party and UKIP. However, it is questionable whether the referendum will make any difference or even convince the British people of the importance of the EU. The Conservative party is completely split on the issue and will likely remain so after June 23. Voter alienation will probably be unlikely to change, too. In case of a Brexit, Leave advocators (on both the right and the left) will be deeply disappointed with what their vote actually meant. After all exiting the EU will not change the realities of globalisation. In addition, the UK will have to continue adopting EU laws (without having a say in the law-making process) and paying into the EU budget if they want to be part of the European free market. Staying in the union will be similarly disappointing, as much needed EU reforms are unlikely to happen. And the referendum craze across Europe is one of the main reasons.

Can the referendum be democratic? Reflections on the Brexit Process by Stephen Tierney (Professor of Constitutional Theory, University of Edinburgh).

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