The European politics of the perpetual referendum
A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of the referendum. Its current popularity in the toolkit of international politics – from Greece to the UK – illustrates just how difficult it has become for representative democracy to deliver meaningful outcomes in international negotiations. And yet, instead of affirming participatory democracy, the increasing use of referendums bears the risk of undermining it.
On the brink of Graccident
The culmination of the Greek debt saga in this weekend’s referendum provides a cautionary tale for Britain on the road to its own EU referendum.
A few weeks ago - after months of stalled, fruitless negotiations – (then) Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis warned that “we are dangerously close to a state of mind that accepts an accident”.
Yesterday, 61% of Greeks said ‘OXI’ (no) and rejected the proposed bailout terms. The Greek government is emboldened by the outcome, but initial reactions abroad have been harshly negative. While affirming ‘the will of the people’, the referendum has drastically reduced the room for manoeuvre on all sides. Greece now moves into a stage of deep uncertainty.
When this crisis began, hardly anyone thought that Grexit was a likely, let alone desirable scenario. As neither side seems willing to back down, Grexit may simply occur almost by accident, without anyone making that deliberate choice.
There is now a high risk of Greece becoming a failed state – a state whose political institutions are not merely dysfunctional but that have become hollow. And where the democratic process – be it via elections or referendums – proves incapable of bringing about change and delivering on promises made.
On the road towards Braccident?
The Conservatives have steadily built towards a head-on collision with Brussels ever since they came back into power in 2010.
David Cameron’s insistence on a reformulation of the UK-EU relationship is backed by findings of a ComRes/New Direction Foundation poll. Only one in five Britons (19%) are satisfied with the EU in its current form. The same poll also found that two thirds of Britons (64%) want less involvement of the EU in the affairs of the UK – the only country surveyed where a majority of people said that.
When Mr Cameron recently embarked upon his whistle-stop tour of European capitals to build support for his ‘terms of renegotiation’, it quickly became apparent that such support would not be readily forthcoming. Using the referendum to up the ante at the negotiating table may not be received warmly in some European capitals.
However, without having developed a clear roadmap of how the UK will be able to secure its ‘red lines’, the commitment to hold a referendum may turn out to be a risky gamble. In fact, at this point it remains unclear where exactly the British government draws these lines. Consequently, voters are left wondering what it is they will be asked to say “yes” or “no” to. Without clear outcomes of the renegotiation, and a clear vision for what the EU will look like as a result, the public will find the question they are posed in a referendum a tough one to answer. The protracted confusion about whether the government is aiming for change to the EU treaties makes clear outcomes harder to achieve.
If Cameron is unable to get his way in Brussels, he will have to present voters with a clearly defined alternative to EU membership. However, the potential alternatives seem ill-suited to the aim of repatriating considerable powers to Westminster while allowing the UK to remain tightly integrated into the European and global economies. Not to mention the various opt-outs the UK already has. The EEA Norway-model doesn’t solve the political problems, the Swiss-style bilateral model bears considerable economic risks.
And even if it all does go his way, it’s unlikely to put the issue of EU membership to rest. As Scottish and English nationalism threaten to tear the Union apart, another Scottish referendum appears but a matter of time.
Using referendums as a bargaining chip risks unforeseen mishaps. Where the intended result may once have seemed an easy victory, it could become mired by a messy negotiation. Instead of increasing a government’s bargaining power, it can antagonise your counterparts and limit your options. Instead of empowering voters, it could disillusion them when they realise that heightened expectations cannot be met. Rather, there is a considerable risk of losing control of the public debate to your opponents looking to capitalise on your missteps.
At that point, instead of a controlled Brexit with a well-defined alternative in place, we may see a Braccident.
If the Greek case is anything to go by, maintaining open lines of communication to negotiation partners, managing each other’s expectations and planning for contingencies are all well-advised. Clear outcomes from an early stage help to shape a more successful strategy in the long term.