Referenda in the EU – who is afraid of the direct democracy thermometer?

Referenda in the EU – who is afraid of the direct democracy thermometer?

Linka Toneva, PhD

8 Jan 2017

Days after the end of the Slovakian Presidency of the Council of the EU, the Prime Minister of the country, with certain relief yet with concern called for his colleagues in EU Member States “to stop the adventure” with referenda on domestic issues which threaten the European Union. Leaving the problematic distinguishing between domestic and general EU membership issues aside, the observation of Prime Minister Robert Fico clearly demonstrates the disposition of European leaders as regards direct democracy.

Fico has his reasons for concern. The People’s Party, a far right Slovakian political organization has already initiated a petition for holding a referendum on the membership of the country in the EU and NATO. Of course, the thresholds for validity adopted in Slovakia – and in Bulgaria for that matter – are high enough to serve as a guarantee against anti-systemic actions and political opportunism. This has its positives, especially in societies more prone to such extremisms and populisms. Even if the Slovakian People’s Party collects the 350 000 necessary signatures, the voter turnout in the referendum has to be over 50% to make it valid and binding.

However, the note of the Slovakian Prime Minister has broader political roots and is related to threats that go far beyond the narrow national borders. These roots can be traced at least back to the referendum in Greece in 2015 in regard to the financial terms of the Greek debt. The most recent memory for Slovakia however is the memory of the wave of referenda – Brexit and the constitutional referendum in Italy – which nudged the EU during the Presidency of the small Central European country.

Much similarly to David Cameron in the United Kingdom, the Italian Prime Minister Mateo Renzi relied on the referendum to consolidate his political support and ultimately lost it all. And as a result of his defeat, one of the EU-skeptic and populist alternatives strengthened its positions in Italy (this party has already declared its support for a future referendum for exit from the Eurozone, although it has so far acted as a constructively Euro-skeptic actor). In France Marine Le Pen has also promised to schedule a referendum for the country’s EU and Eurozone membership if she secures an electoral victory this year. The same promise was given also by the candidate who ranked second in the Austrian Presidential race – an election which did not have a “Trump-effect”, much to the relief of the more traditional and moderate Europeans.

To top all that, in a referendum in Hungary in October 2016 the Hungarians strongly objected to the migrant quotas in the EU (over 98% of those who voted were “against” the quotas) – but the results are not official since the necessary turnout threshold of 50% was not met (43,9% have voted).

At this backdrop of referenda in recent months, the direct democracy starts to feel as an adventure. In a moment when the EU is faced with an urgent need for political determination and consolidation to solve the common issues which Member States have to deal with (migration, terrorism, economic recovery, strengthening the single market), putting each single policy measure on a direct public approval risks to lead to more disintegration and less Europe.

The Italians may be fed up with the Euro and the Greeks might be fed up with the financial limitations posed by the creditors. But both in a short term and a long term perspective, each of these societies can only guarantee stable economic growth, and hence dealing with the deeper societal challenges by integrated solutions in a united Europe with strongly innovative and competitive economy and stable institutions. But these should not be merely statements from the EU institutions’ white papers or the political speeches in the European Parliament. These should be translated into specific policies implemented with strong civic participation (consultations, public hearings, European citizen initiative, volunteering are only some of the available tools in the democracy toolbox). Therefore the problem is not the referenda per se as an instrument for direct participation of citizens. The problem is that referenda often remain the only available tool for participation. Limiting democracy to elections and referenda can only have one single foretold result – rise of populisms and stronger sentiments of democratic deficit.

Democracy is more than electoral participation and referenda. It’s also the readiness for civic oversight on the work of institutions, for support for civic initiatives, for protection of the basic rights and freedoms. The major challenge for the European policies is how to make them the foundation for an informed, rational and open public debate within and between the multiple and various European publics. This should be a debate which is sustained daily and routinely, rather than triggered by populisms and only in times of crisis.