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?

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