‘Stopping referendums in EU is attack on democracy’

‘Stopping referendums in EU is attack on democracy’
The EU is an antidemocratic project without popular support, says Robert Oulds, chair of the Bruges Group. Calls to stop referendums signal the democratic deficit of the EU, says Matthew Goodwin, Associate Professor at University of Nottingham.

Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico on Monday called on EU leaders to stop holding referendums on domestic issues, saying that it is a threat to the future of the EU and its currency.

Slovakia is itself facing requests from its citizens for referendums. The far-right People’s Party petitioned for a referendum on membership in both the EU and NATO in June.

RT: Robert, Slovakia’s prime minister has asked EU leaders “to stop with adventures like the British and Italian referendums… on domestic issues which pose a threat to the EU.” How democratic is it to ask leaders to stop something that is supposed to represent the will of the people?

Robert Oulds: Absolutely. Referendums are the popular will of the people expressed in the mechanism of voting on a specific issue. There is no clearer way of deciding what the public thinks than to hold a referendum. That has been standard in many other counties that have direct democracies, such as Switzerland… All countries should consider the issue of having a referendum. They do so in the UK – it has been very successful here… To stop this process taking place is a direct attack on democracy, because this is what the public wants now…

There are many ways people can discuss particular topics. They can be well-informed and can make an appropriate decision. To stop people having a vote on important issues, such as what’s happened in Italy with constitutional changes, which would have led to more centralization in Italy; of course the referendum on Britain leaving the EU – to stop those kinds of referendums taking place is an attack on democracy.

RT: According to the dictionary, a referendum is a vote in which all the people in a country or an area are asked to give their opinion about or decide an important political or social question. What can be dangerous about it?

RO: Referenda are quite clearly a threat to the EU. Whenever there is a referendum in almost any EU state on a topic to do with EU integration – they vote against the EU. Britain voted to leave the EU on 23 June. When the French had a referendum on the EU constitution, so had the Dutch, the people there voted ‘no.’ They brought it back as the Lisbon Treaty, and this time didn’t give them a vote.  When the Danish had a vote on the Maastricht Treaty and the Euro – they voted against the Euro. When the Swedes had a referendum on the Euro, they voted against the Euro. Ireland voted against the Nice Treaty and against the Lisbon Treaty – on both issues they were made to vote again…

Whenever the topic of the EU is taken away from the political elites and given to the public to make the decision, almost always the public of each country votes against the EU, because the EU is a project that exists without popular support. It is in itself an antidemocratic project – it is about taking power away from national democratic institutions and giving them to various elites centered on the institutions of the EU in Brussels. That is the key to the EU...

If you aren’t giving the rights to people to make these decisions, if there is going to be pressure put on national leaders not to hold any more referendums, this will be very, very dangerous. It will mean that people would have to go off to the political extremes to get their voice heard – be that voting for the left, or right wing extremist parties. If you don’t give them a chance to have their own national democracy or a say on these important issues through mechanisms such as referendums, then people will inevitably go to extremes.

And that is beginning to happen in Europe at the moment. This is largely because of European integration, and many failures – economic and in terms of massive unemployment it caused; of course the migration crisis – largely caused by the EU’s open borders. If they don’t have this mechanism, then people will turn and make the change themselves either through extremist parties, or perhaps other measures. So he is very mistaken to try and put this genie back in the bottle. Basically, the public want to run their own affairs and do not want to be dictated to by the EU. The EU doesn’t have much of an opportunity to try to stop this. They will try to stop it, but ultimately, they will fail.

‘EU citizens’ responses in referendums uncomfortable for elites’

RT: Matthew, how democratic is the Slovak prime minister’s calls to stop something that is supposed to represent the will of the people?

Matthew Goodwin: It is interesting that the Slovak prime minister has described the referendums as ‘adventures,’ when in fact referendums ask voters for their views on often very topical issues. We’ve seen in Europe – both in Britain and Hungary – referendums have been designed to allow the people to express their views towards various issues. The responses that the people have given have been uncomfortable for elites within the EU. As a consequence, they are now calling for those referendums to be stopped, and for essentially the people to be pushed back out of those political debates. It is clearly, in my view, further evidence for the democratic deficit that lies at the heart of EU institutions.  

RT: Fico said that referendums of domestic issues are a threat. What is so dangerous to the EU in nations’ own domestic issues? Why can’t they have any sovereignty?

MG: This particular intervention was primarily following a series of referendums that we’ve had in Europe, not only in Britain and Hungary, but also in Italy, where the instability that followed the result risks the Eurozone area. So the Slovak prime minister is essentially saying the EU should no longer permit referendums on domestic issues when they hold a potential to threaten the EU. The consequence of that, the implication of that position, is still that the will of the people and public opinion is marginalized in favor of prioritizing the EU. That comes at a time when the EU itself is suffering from a lack of legitimacy at the grass roots among ordinary voters, who over the last 10-15 years have become less trustful, not only in the European Parliament, but also in their national governments. So this is not particularly helpful in my view – to be making this kind of dismissive statement towards voters at this point in European history.

RT: So if we look at the results of past referendums, ordinary people don’t really support the EU and its policies – the Greek referendum against the Troika’s reforms in 2015, Brexit again, the Dutch one, and so on. What does it say about public feelings about the EU as a whole?

MG: One of the key developments in European politics at the moment is growing support for openly nationalist political parties that want to offer voters referendums in many cases on the issue of EU membership, or the Euro single currency, and which want to return more power away from the EU and back to the nation-state. Those political movements and parties have been emboldened by the vote for Brexit, and they have been emboldened by the election of Donald Trump in the US. They are now arguing in many countries that democratic powers should be returned to the people within those nation-states and they should be given a say over these issues like EU membership.

The EU is likely to respond to this push, as we’re beginning to see now in the comments by the Slovak prime minister and by others within the EU – by trying to push back against this popular uprising, which is particularly strong, don’t forget, among voters who typically have not had a good 10 or 20 years within the EU, voters who feel they have not benefited from European integration; who feel that they have not benefited from the very small levels of economic growth that have been taking place across much of the Eurozone, and who feel left behind – both by how their countries have evolved, but also how the EU has progressed...

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.