The Corner

National Security & Defense

The EU’s Referendum Problem

Misguided it may (often) be, but The Economist can be an interesting and informative read, not least for the insight it gives into the thinking of the supranationalist elite it writes for, not least that part of it driving the EU’s dismal ‘project’ forward.

A new piece on the “throbbing headache” allegedly represented by “national referendums on EU matters” is a case in piece. The starting point is an awkward Dutch referendum on the EU’s association agreement with Ukraine (I wrote a bit about that here), but the writer takes a broader perspective, a perspective that is a reminder how difficult it is to square deeper European integration with democratic control:

 [T]he EU needs more integration just when many voters are turning against it. The euro zone and EU migration policy are both half-built ships. Each may require changes to EU treaties to allow more centralisation. But extending Brussels’s powers into new areas will fuel the appetite for referendums that could scupper the changes. Moreover, notes Stefan Lehne, a former Austrian diplomat, these days EU politicians test the existing treaties to breaking point in order to avoid triggering referendums. The clamour for direct democracy thus fosters the legalistic jiggery-pokery to which it has been a reaction.

All this smells horribly undemocratic to some.

Well, yes, since you mention it.

The single currency’s original sin was the absence of democratic consent for a structure that might have made this reckless monetary experiment slightly less likely to lead to catastrophe. The euro was launched nonetheless, a ‘half-built ship’, as The Economist puts it, with the consequences we all know. But there is, if anything, even less support for deeper centralization than there was at the time of the currency’s creation. To suggest that that inconvenient reality should be overlooked is to insist that the single currency is irreversible in a way difficult to reconcile with legitimate democratic expectations.

The same can be said about the EU’s migration policy (by which The Economist means another reckless Brussels gamble—Schengen, its ‘passport-free’ zone). Schengen has been popular, but the surge in immigration into the EU in recent years appears to be changing the way quite a few voters think. One alternative is clearly to press on with a centralized immigration regime (centered around Brussels that is), but another is to rethink the whole thing and return to national border control. The problem for eurofundamentalists (a category into which The Economist must these days more or less be placed) with the latter is their conviction (“ever closer union” means what it says) that the project must never, ever be allowed to go into reverse, regardless, again, of what voters might think.

Towards the article’s closing, a balanced note:

[J]oining a club, or striking a deal with it, will always limit governments’ room for manoeuvre. National politicians can shoulder some of the blame for not being clear with voters about what their arrangements with the EU imply.

True enough, but the deliberately opaque process of ‘ever closer union’ has a lot to do with that.  And “joining a club” should not necessarily involve abandoning the vetoes that the democratic process may produce. That the EU so often insists that it does says a great deal. 

Back to The Economist:

[T]oo often EU officials seem wedded to the views of their founding father, Jean Monnet, who wrote that he “thought it wrong to consult the peoples of Europe about the structure of a community of which they had no practical experience”.

A quote to remember…

The article closes:

[The failure to consult] may have worked when Eurocrats restricted themselves to tinkering with agricultural subsidies and fisheries policy. Not any more: the age of referendums is here to stay.

Well, the failure to consult worked well (as has ignoring consultations – remember those overidden referendums in France and Holland) long after the age of agricultural subsidies and fisheries policy. By and large it still does. Often, referendums are all that is left. Europe needs more of them. 

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