Does the EU have a referendum problem?

Is the EU a liability on the ballot papaer?
Is the EU a liability on the ballot paper?

Eurosceptic hearts were gladdened last week, when they claimed victory in the referendum. Of course I’m referring to the Dutch referendum on the free-trade deal between the EU and the Ukraine, in which a majority of the minority who voted in the Netherlands on Wednesday, chose to reject the deal.

Despite insisting that neither Dublin, Washington or anywhere else should tell you how to vote, on Europe, Nigel Farage even went and campaigned for a ‘No’ vote in the Netherlands and uttered a joyous “Hooray!” as the news was announced.

The Dutch vote has certainly been reported as a body blow for European integration, even though it is non-binding, it concerns two areas where it still holds some considerable appeal (expansion and free trade). One of the EU’s more persistent and cerebral opponents, Conservative MEP Dan Hannan was keen to add this collection of votes where he sees the EU getting a kicking at the ballot box. Brussels “doesn’t take no for an answer” he says, in summing-up recent EU-related public votes:

“Greece – NO Denmark – NO Netherlands – NO – All referendums in the past 12 months have gone against Brussels.”

All correct (as far as he’s gone) but is the EU always bound to loose at the ballot box? Will we have to vote again if the UK votes to leave the EU on 23 June? The history of the EU on the ballot paper paints an unclear picture, roughly-speaking there have been two categories of votes; those to support or reject membership and those to approve changes within it.

There have been twenty referendums for a country or territory to join or leave the EU since the Republic of Ireland became the first in 1972 to give popular endorsement to the EEC (as it was then), the United Kingdom was the third in 1975 and the most recent was Croatia in 2012. All but three such votes have been to support membership, Norway said  ‘No’ to membership (twice) but only Greenland has voted to actually leave, and only by a majority of around 1,500. In all other eighteen referendums the voters have opted to join, though none have so far been asked to stay.

Of course when it comes to approving changes to the EU the picture is less clear. Roughly twenty-five national votes have taken place since 1973 to approve or reject EEC or EU treaties, plans or designs, there has never been an EU-wide vote. Fifteen of these twenty-five have been held in either Ireland or Denmark, which reflects the fact that nothing at EU level requires a referendum; it’s up each country to decide if the proposed change requires one according to its own constitution. So far fifteen out of the twenty five have been won by the side favoured by Brussels and ten so far having been lost, including Wednesday’s Dutch vote.

There have been instances when national majorities have rejected treaties from Maastricht to Lisbon and then been asked after negotiations to vote again, all of these instances were in either Ireland or Denmark, the two Irish votes on the Lisbon Treaty being the most recent example. This may cause some to remark that Brussels “doesn’t take no for an answer” but when France and the Netherlands famously rejected the so-called EU constitution in 2005 all member states had to go back to the drawing-board, and well over a decade after Denmark and then Sweden voted joining the Euro currency they remain no closer to adopting it.

The overall picture is at best mixed, but across the continent (Norway and Greenland aside) democratic majorities have on the whole said “yes” (in whatever language) to joining-up and then  stayed-in. They certainly haven’t always said ‘yes’ to  proposed changes but existentially the EU as a project seems to enjoy some sort of approval, however lukewarm. Considering that there is still no European “demos”, no European political culture and certainly no approved EU version of the continents’ tumultuous history, this is quite remarkable.

What is often of concern to some in Brussels and elsewhere is that turnout in European Parliamentary elections is so paltry, having fallen from 62% in its first election in 1979 to 42.5% in the 2014 election.

The 3 votes of the last 12 months were to reject Brussels-born ideas but on none of these countries will leave the EU any time soon. If this pattern were to repeat itself in the UK’s election in June then it would be bad news for Dan Hannan and other Brexit birgadeers given that the issue up for vote is one of overall membership and not of David Cameron’s deal. This could mean that on 23 June the UK will become the first of 28 Euro nations to be asked twice and opted to remain twice.

The Dutch vote however has raised a further point of concern which Brexit’s cheerleaders haven’t yet addressed. If one member state can decide to scuttle any proposed trade deal between the EU and a non-member, won’t that mean that roughly 13 million Dutch voters could in theory torpedo any post-Brexit deal?

  • Roger

    …since the Republic of Ireland became the first in 1972…
    The name of the state is Ireland. Has been since 1937. There’s no “Republic of”. Just read the Official Journal of the European Union for that matter….

  • “The Dutch vote however has raised a further point of concern which Brexit’s cheerleaders haven’t yet addressed. If one member state can decide to scuttle any proposed trade deal between the EU and a non-member, won’t that mean that roughly 13 million Dutch voters could in theory torpedo any post-Brexit deal?”

    Isn’t that also a problem for the Remain campaign, and Cameron’s yet to be defined new EU deal?

  • Kevin Breslin

    I find it interesting that the Swiss were given a referendum on whether all dealing their nation has with the EU and other nations should be put to a public vote.
    They voted massively against that.

    The Swiss used their direct democracy, to effectively defer power away from direct democracy. Not a single Eurosceptic in the UK is up for giving the British people a say in the trade deals with other countries.

    So unlike the Dutch and the Irish, the non-EU Swiss people don’t have a direct veto over their trade arrangements, because in a way, that was way too much direct democracy for them.

    I feel this may be the same thing with the British Eurosceptics, they need more democracy to have less democracy … Westminster is WE-minster, heavens forbid that the British people would vote against them, wanting to vote against the decisions of your own national government in between election cycles is just too much democracy for some.

  • Kevin Breslin

    Ah Sour Grapes … a clear indication of the spending priorities, the international partnerships priorities and migration policies for the first three months of a Brexit policy.

    The European Union has changed several times through many changes in government across 28 national parliaments, and 8 European Parliaments and the Single Market has adjusted to each and every change.

    The last time the UK lost an EU vote was on the basis of imposing a limit upon banker’s bonuses to be no more than their high weekly salary. I’m sorry that the UK has suffered so much as a result.

  • Kevin Breslin

    “Considering that there is still no European “demos”, no European political culture and certainly no approved EU version of the continents’ tumultuous history, this is quite remarkable.”

    A demos put the governments in place to make up the Council and the Council of Ministers and to appoint the Commissioners. A demos elected the European Parliament.

    The EU, just like nation states and governments are artificial structures made by a demos.

    The EU is right wing and Eurosceptic elected by a right wing and Eurosceptic people making their vote count, a people that believes in self-responsibility and trusting their neighbours as little as necessary.

    This EU is about establishing boundaries and the price of boundaries is bureaucracy and mistrust.

    As a center left-wing Europhile, I don’t have sour grapes that a Social Europe hasn’t won the overall balance of power in the EU bodies for the time being, I want to believe that with the massive concerns and issues that face Europe the ability to forge networks between people who are willing to work for better opportunities and reduce the costs in Europe of division.

    It takes work to change the European Union.
    It takes work to change the U.K. or ROI
    It takes work to change Northern Ireland or the Six Counties.

    If people are sitting on their arse, annoying their own happiness reading Daily Mail articles, none of this work is going to get done. That’s an Inert Demos in inaction.

    If people are defensive, they are not going to take business risks, explore new scientific concepts, learn new cultures and express their own in a polite manner, they are not going to imagine solutions to their problems, whatever they may be. They are not going to negotiate, they are going to threaten.

    But there is no “Demos” anywhere in the world where the Executive power given consent is free from dissent. The absence of an EU doesn’t really change that.

    The whole purpose of politics is to work on finding agreements when people disagree have to come together to find some sort of new agreement.

    Brussels is a superposition of 28 elected governments and elected politicians from 28 nations. The people make the nations, they make the governments, they make the politicians and ultimately they make the European Union too.

    I don’t really believe in national or continental political cultures or national or believe in continental or national versions of history.

    The only places where one hegemony version of a political culture and one version of history exists is in a non-democracy like China or North Korea.

    The fact the EU is full of arguments, negotiations, debates, trade-offs and failed referendums, countries blaming one another, deference of responsibility, is a sign of a healthy democracy not the absence of one.

  • Paul Hagan

    As far as I’m aware Roger The Republic of Ireland Act of 1948 refers to “the Republic of Ireland” I wanted to be clear, which jurisdiction I was referring to and didn’t want to say “South of Ireland” or use any other less formal term. The term “Republic of Ireland” appears in many UK laws, as far as I’m aware. I referred to “Ireland” for much of the article.

    I often have to read the OJ for my sins but it isn’t quite the standard, I often have to point-out to French and Belgian peers that “Angleterre” is not the French for “Great Britain or United Kingdom” and it’s been 3 centuries!

  • terence patrick hewett

    Casuistry Kevin.

  • Kevin Breslin

    Just before the UK joined the EU, many who are now on the Eurosceptic side would have denounced the demands of NICRA as being undemocratic as NICRA didn’t represent their own particular “demos”.

    The Ulster Worker’s Strike “demos” happened when the UK was in the EEC, Europe, Westminster, Leinster House and Stormont basically allowed this minority demos to have everything they wanted.

    After years and years of demagogery it becomes clear that “demos” is simply a code-speak for My tribe … be that sinn féin in Irish or oorsels in Ulster Scots.

  • Kevin Breslin

    Probably it’s like calling the Netherlands “Holland” in a way.

  • terence patrick hewett

    Then out spake brave Horatius,
    The Captain of the Gate:
    “To every man upon this earth
    Death cometh soon or late.
    And how can man die better
    Than facing fearful odds,
    For the ashes of his fathers,
    And the temples of his Gods.”

  • Paul Hagan

    A little bit yes, but many of us are guilty of that

  • terence patrick hewett

    Or Dutch and Deutsch.

  • terence patrick hewett

    O, beware, my lord, of jealousy;
    It is the green-ey’d monster, which doth mock
    The meat it feeds on. That cuckold lives in bliss,
    Who, certain of his fate, loves not his wronger:
    But O, what damnèd minutes tells he o’er
    Who dotes, yet doubts, suspects, yet strongly loves!

  • Angry Mob

    Noticed this earlier whilst browsing and thought it fitted the general theme.

    “Referenda are becoming a huge problem for the EU. The latest result in the Netherlands on the Association Agreement with Ukraine is probably the worst possible outcome. If the turnout had been below 30% the Dutch government could have safely ignored the vote…

    Undoubtedly there is a growing trend towards referenda. There have been over 50 in the last twenty years. Sometimes referenda are forced upon governments if there is sufficient voter support, as was the case in the Netherlands… Perhaps it is time for an EU ban on referenda!”
    Fraser Cameron, former senior adviser to the EU Commission.

    That’s what the EU bureaucrats think of the plebs getting a vote.

  • Roger

    Ireland would have done just fine. Islands don’t join international organisations. States do. You won’t find the Republic of Ireland in the OJ either.

  • terence patrick hewett

    OED says no: only in anglosphere does dutch equate with nederlands. Kak in jou eiers?

  • terence patrick hewett

    Wat maak jou prikker in my primus stove Greenflag? If you consult Fowler he backs up Mr Onions of the OED.

    If that is too Anglo for you the very German Eduard Sievers makes the same point: as do Henry Sweet, Walter Skeat, E. E. Wardale and Joseph and Elizabeth Wright in their extensive and knowledgable works. Best write and tell the OED they are in error; they love a bit of friendly banter. But if you want to address the others for their grievous faults you will need a Ouija board.