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Why a national referendum does not work, but a European one will

08-04-2016 | Adriaan Schout

National referenda cause frustration, but an EU-wide consultation of the public does have its use, Adriaan Schout writes.

Pandora’s box is open. Deal with it.

Adriaan Schout, Europe coordinator at Clingendael Institute. 8 April 2016. Original source: Volkskrant.

Dutch prime minister Rutte is in a difficult position now: he has to try and explain to 27 Member States that a small EU state like the Netherlands is putting a spanner in the works for the association agreement with Ukraine. It proves how a national referendum paralyses joint decision making.

Surprise and irritation among other EU politicians and significant parts of the Member States are to be expected. How would we react if Finland were to block something in the EU that was already a done deal between the Netherlands and the other Member States and that we would not want to re-discuss at EU level for another two years? The EU is looking for success stories and now one country is spoiling it.

To be sure, the Netherlands can explain that this agreement was just a bridge too far (including hints of military cooperation), that citizens of other Member States are harbouring growing EU concerns as well, that complex EU agreements with awkward compromises cause irritation, or that explanations are called for as to where the EU’s boundaries lie. However good Rutte’s story, the other government leaders have not held such a referendum and are therefore far less open to the rational and irrational insights the Dutch have now gained during their debates.


Pandora’s box is open

The discussion which the Netherlands now has to launch in the EU is whether national referenda on EU-wide issues should be replaced by EU-wide referenda. For years we have been talking about the European democratic deficit, and critical groups in Member States can be seen to be calling for referenda on EU policy. It is likely that these groups will certainly not want an EU referendum due to its federalist connotation. Criticism may also be expected from the European Parliament because an EU-wide referendum can be seen as an acknowledgement of its failure to reduce the democratic deficit.

However, it is one or the other: either a joint EU policy with a joint democracy and different sources of legitimation, or we get rid of the EU. Stopgap measures like yellow, orange or red cards do not really make anyone happy. Nor is there any more point in being against national referenda: Pandora’s box is open now. Deal with it.

The European Parliament has difficulty getting accepted as representative of the European citizens. The distance between the citizen and the EP is too big, both literally and figuratively. No wonder bottom-up initiatives are emerging. Referenda seem to become a European democratic control mechanism, like a river automatically flowing to its lowest point.



National referenda on EU-wide issues lead only to frustration. Countries that hold an EU referendum have to face 27 other countries and the other 27 countries feel disproportionately pressurised. The smaller the country holding a referendum, the bigger the irritation.

A national referendum is an untenable instrument in the EU. Besides, if we organise an EU referendum, it will in fact be in our own interest if other countries do so as well. We will then not be alone in the EU discussions on the outcome. What’s more, it may be conducive to more European involvement, because supporters and opponents will be acting across borders. Of course, the organised European protest vote is also a form of European integration.

The logic behind EU-wide referenda raises all manner of questions. These can only be answered via political discussion. How many Member States should participate - five, nine, or all 28? Can Member States, informally, try to act in parallel in national referenda, or should this be done via European laws? Will it even require an official treaty amendment? How many Europeans should be able to request the referendum - 1 million, like the otherwise unknown European citizens’ initiative for new legislation?


The Netherlands has a lot of explaining to do

What is also important is on what EU issues referenda should be possible. Trade agreements lie within the competence of the European Commission. Does that mean that no referendum can be held on them? It is in particular trade agreements that cause fierce debate in Member States – just consider TTIP. Referenda can indeed be held on subjects where Member States and the EU act jointly, but such referenda are pointless. Most countries, when acting alone, will immediately be outvoted in the European Council because they only have a small percentage of the votes. A national referendum will thus be purely for form’s sake.

After this 'no’ the Netherlands has a lot of explaining to do in the EU. One of the message’s Rutte may have to convey is: such referenda will also affect you, and you may expect referenda in your country too. This ‘no' is not only a Dutch problem, but calls for a structural European democratic response. Other countries, too, will have to ask themselves whether this may provide a solution to the democratic deficit.


Adriaan Schout, Europe coordinator at Clingendael Institute. 8 April 2016. Original source: Volkskrant.

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