Nosemonkey's EUtopia

In search of a European identity

On an EU referendum

So, according to a poll for the Financial Times, a decent majority of Europeans want the chance to vote on whatever treaty / constitution eventually emerges for the future of Europe.

We’ve now got everyone from the full-on eurosceptic UKIP and the loosely eurosceptic Tories through to the Young European Federalists all behind the referendum idea – all, naturally, hoping that the European public will back their own stance and therefore give them legitimacy. (Well, except the Tories, who are probably hoping that a British “no” vote under a Labour government would let them nicely off the hook…)

In an ideal world, yes, an EU-wide referendum – every country voting on the same day, every country needing to return a majority on a simple yes/no question – would be the best way to secure proper legitimacy for the next step in the EU’s evolution. God knows, there’s little enough democratic backing for the thing as it currently stands.

But the thing is, unless the people voting in the referendum really know what they’re voting about, the whole exercise will be pointless. As happened in the pro-EU camp after the French and Dutch constitutional referenda, and in the anti-EU camp after the British EEC referendum back in the 1970s, the losing side will simply claim that they would have had more support if the people only knew what they were doing.

This is born out fully by the FT poll – 69% of Brits surveyed want a referendum. 55% haven’t got the first clue what the EU constitution was actually all about.

Any long-term readers of this blog will doubtless be aware that the EU is both incredibly dull and insanely complex. I don’t pretend to understand half of the bloody thing, despite being fairly intelligent, well-educated, and having worked in politics in both Brussels and Westminster in my time. Having read the old constitution text all the way through, though I think I understood most of it the damned thing was so long I really couldn’t be certain.

While supporters of the referendum idea always shout this down with accusations that even bringing it up shows a patronising, paternalistic, anti-democratic contempt for the public’s intelligence, it’s simply true: the European public as a whole do not and probably can not understand enough about the complexities of EU reform to make an adequate judgement in a referendum.

That lack of understanding will most likely lead to a low turn-out – bar in those member states mid-way through a governmental term with voters getting restless – and a low turnout would again undermine the legitimacy of the entire process. It would also mean that the extremists at either end of the EU spectrum – the rabid withdrawalists on one side and the barking integrationists on the other – will get to settle the matter by sheer weight of numbers and organisational skill.

In the UK, of course, the Eurosceptics are far better mobilised, and have the press on their side to boot – with the Times, Telegraph, Mail, Express, Sun and News of the World all pretty much guaranteed to support a “no”, with only the little-read Guardian and Independent likely to come out in favour of a “yes”. In any referendum, following a solid two decades of populist (and frequently exaggerated if not outright inaccurate) anti-EU rhetoric seeping from press and politicians in a constant stream, the UK’s population is likely to vote “no” not because they’ve assessed the merits of the constitution / treaty, but through petty partisan/patriotic ignorance.

That, at least, is how it will be represented by supporters of the new treaty.

Personally, while disliking the concept of referenda and direct democracy intensely (for reasons too long-winded to go into now), and while being largely pro-EU, I’m actually in favour of a referendum for the very reason that the end result is bound to be another “no”, which will lead to yet more votes and yet more “no”s. Yes, the majority of member states will likely pass the thing – but not Britain, not the Czech Republic, not Poland, and quite possibly not Holland or France again either.

Another rejection via referendum would, hopefully, finally force the EU bigwigs back to the drawing board for real. It might, if we’re lucky, make them face up to the fact that what the EU needs isn’t just a partial reorganisation and a few bells and whistles, but wholesale reform and restructuring. And if the next rejection doesn’t do the job, maybe the one after that will.

Because just as the constitution was a botched compromise – designed to lessen the problems of the botched compromise that was the Treaty of Nice, which was meant to reform the botched compromise of Maastricht, and so on ad infinitum – the new “mini-treaty” is bound to be a botched compromise instead. A meaningless, bland mish-mash of what everyone wants which will leave no one entirely satisfied.

What the EU needs is not yet another treaty designed by committee that fails once again to tackle the real problems – it needs something radical.

If a referendum rejection can force them towards a radical solution – even if that solution were to be to boot those states that vote “no” out of the club so that the rest can get on with it – so much the better. Because the current situation with the EU is decidedly a case of too many cooks spoiling the broth – and all because none of the cooks have known what the recipe is for well over a decade. It gets to a stage when what you need is not a bit more seasoning, but to throw the whole lot out and start again from scratch, this time learning from your mistakes rather than constantly adding to them.

Sadly, however, learning from mistakes doesn’t seem to be an EU strong point…


  1. The problem is that while binding referenda and the need for unanimity would kill off most bad ideas, they would probably kill off pretty much any idea. Indeed, I think a ‘radical’ change would be an even harder sell, because even if there is a majority in favour of change, they want different changes. Can you imagine a single document of any substance that would satisfy all 27 electorates simultaneously, however well-understood it was? Even in a direct democracy, electorates cannot negotiate or compromise with each other, which means they either get pretty much exactly they want, or they get nothing. And if what they want is incompatible with what someone else wants…

    As for booting out the stragglers, this could be a way of persuading them to make their minds up, either accepting the loss of a few points for the sake of staying in the game, or realigning to a more ‘comfortable’ (and politically lazy?) position on the sidelines. But it could also send the weaker ones into a populist-nationalist tailspin, which wouldn’t do anyone any good.

  2. Killing off any idea is pretty much the plan. I don’t see a one-size-fits-all EU as the way forward, because (as the last few years of failed compromises have shown) there’s simply too many member states now for everyone to be happy with the same thing.

    If they see such broad, sweeping proposals rejected again and again for a vast range of different reasons in the various member states, they may finally realise that the only way forward is a multiple-tier approach – then each member state could vote on which of the various tiers of membership they want to have, assuming the referendum idea sticks.

    It’s an idea that’s already gaining some steam. Romano Prodi’s hinted vaguely that different levels of membership could work in recent weeks – and though he may be in an unstable position at home, he’s fairly respected by EU bigwigs. Someone may eventually listen to him, with any luck…

  3. Schengen is a good example of what can be done at state levels.

    I am pro European (French, German wife, kids born in the UK), but I am growing disillusioned with what Europe has become.

    What killed it for me is the concept of harmonisation, and the rise of the European bureaucracy which followed it. Everyone should be the same, according to what politicians think is important. All the while, we still have different electrical plugs from one country to the next.

    Europe should be a collection of states where what works in one country should work in any of the others. If I am a doctor in the UK, I should be able to be a doctor in Poland. In other words, let the market decide over time what works, but never have a group of states be able to impose something on another group of states (taxes are a good example).

    I voted yes in the French referendum, but more as a reaction to the no camp (Le Pen and Fabius being in that camp) than by conviction.

    I would probably vote no nowadays.

  4. The particular broth that is the EU is stone soup.

  5. @nosemonkey: In most cases, I think we should have a multi-layered system in which reluctant members simply opt out rather than blocking everything. For example, I don’t personally support the idea, but if a large group of EU countries really want a social charter under the EU umbrella, then the UK et al should not be preventing them from doing so, nor forced into joining in. At the policy level, I fully agree with you that the EU is too monolithic, and pretty much anything that can reasonably be hived off into an optional addon, should be. In essence the EU shouldn’t be a set of programmes of cooperation, but rather a strong framework in which those programmes are born and can operate efficiently (including managing some of the details of programmes on behalf of countries that have signed up to them, eg the ECB’s role for Eurozone countries).

    But when it comes to the basic institutional framework, layering is often not possible: for example, Poland cannot ‘opt out’ of rules determining the size of its own voting weight, and small countries cannot unilaterally decide whether or not they should be guaranteed their own commissioner. This is where countries have to be able to accept a package deal: either you take the institutions as they are, or you sit outside them and accept fringe status a la Norway (assuming you still want to take part in various EU-led programmes). But what if you think the institutions are along the right lines, but need to be reformed somehow? Who determines how they should change, if there is disagreement?