A daily blog on the thrills, spills, and frequent absurdities of the world's one and only 'non-imperial empire' - as Barroso himself called it - the European Union.

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Sunday, 20 March 2011

Why a Referendum Doesn't Matter

No matter your own position on the European Union, there aren't many people - in either the federalist or the anti-federalist camp - with such a blatant contempt for democracy that they would deny the people a referendum on continued EU membership. The number of people who state that they want a vote on the subject of 'ever-closer union' is slightly larger than those who say they would vote for withdrawal. When you exclude those who say they don't know, it appears that quite a large proportion of the federalists in the UK would want a vote as much as the most strident Eurosceptic. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with calling for a democratic vote on major constitutional change, and both federalists and anti-federalists outside the European Parliament seem to realise this.

It's a shame that those within the European Parliament do not have the same respect for the founding principles of the modern European nation-state. For decades, the supporters and the opponents of the European project have struggled relentlessly uphill, against a barrage of abuse, to secure a democratic vote on the 'decisive task of our time,' as a German Foreign Minister once put it. Now, it seems that, even if we the current consensus among politicians of every colour is somehow overturned, fifty years of work and effort would have been disregarded by one of the most shockingly anti-democratic bills proposed by the EU.

Andrew Duff, MEP for the Liberal Democrats, has just submitted the following document:


On the one hand, it's good to know that the European Parliament is taking the British Parliament's EU bill seriously. It is evidently not the paper tiger that many British Eurosceptics believed it to be. But, on the other hand, it doesn't matter a jot whether the bill is passed or not; it doesn't even matter if a referendum is held. Because, as the text of the new proposals make clear, no individual nation is considered worthy of rejecting the bill. If four-fifths of them ratify the treaty, then it will be automatically forced upon the others.

Why is this a problem? Surely four-fifths is a majority? Well, yes, it is. But it is a majority of countries, not a majority of people. Think back to the European Constitution, and then the Lisbon Treaty. How many countries actually had a vote? Three? That's nowhere near the twenty-six that had to ratify it. Those countries were signed up to it by heads of state who had either scrapped plans for referendums (Denmark's Prime Minister was applauded in the European Parliament when he announced that he would refuse his people a vote) or never even caught a whiff of a ballot paper, blowing in the wind. The countries that hold referendums would simply be massively outnumbered by those that do not; if this bill is introduced, the EU's political elites would simply be able to dictate the terms of EU proposals to the heads of government of member states, who would then sign off sovereign powers to an unelected institution with no democratic legitimacy or accountability whatsoever.

Britain, Ireland, France, and the Netherlands can have their votes. The two-thirds of people expected to vote 'no' can do so, as they did before. Then what will happen? The EU will look at them and laugh. It will ask the heads of government of the other member states to pull a Gordon Brown - sign off any transfer of power from the elected heads of state to unelected EU institutions in secret - and thus obtain the 'four-fifths' majority, without a single public vote anywhere in Europe being taken into account.

Of course, the EU has always acted like this. It dismissed the referendums in France, the Netherlands, and Ireland, and picked itself up and moved on as if nothing had happened. The European Constitution was renamed and reworded ('In terms of content, the proposals remain largely unchanged, they are simply presented in a different way... the reason is that the new text could not look too much like the constitutional treaty' - chairman of the panel that wrote the thing') and any objectors were told to vote again until they delivered the correct answer. But now there is a legal right for the EU to behave in such a manner; now, there is no need for a democratic vote anywhere in Europe, and, if several are held and each of them return a 'no' vote, they can legally be ignored.

A referendum, however noble calling for one may be, will prove fruitless.

1 comment:

  1. The May 5 UK referendum on AV is Irrelevant. while democracy in the UK is!

    Most of the British public couldn't care a tinker's cuss about EU shenanigans. The UK electorate demand to be allowed(as promised by three separate democratically elected prime ministers) a referendum on UK membership,if for nothing else, to demonstrate that democracy is still alive and kicking in the UK.