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…