Friday 27 May 2011

Referendums on the EU

Nosemonkey and Jon Worth have been writing recently about the idea of a UK referendum on its EU membership. Nosemonkey focused on debunking the reasons for a referendum, but there is essentially two reasons put forward against an in/out referendum: it wouldn't settle the membership question, and without a clear "out" plan, such a referendum wouldn't offer any clear choice. I thought I'd add my two eurocents on this, and why I think it doesn't make sense for those supporting EU membership to support an in/out referendum in the UK at the moment.

If there's one thing that can be drawn from the campaigns on the Constitution for Europe and Lisbon Treaty, it's that referendums are very poor ways of deciding the structure of complex, multi-issue matters. Amending Treaties on the EU have always covered very general reforms, mostly on procedure, and it's hard to explain or campaign on such questions. And as Jon noted, being able to fall back on the status quo meant that rejecting Treaty changes was a responsibility-free pass to further your political stance, without the overall answer of the electorate being obvious. It strikes me that if the outcome of a referendum doesn't give you an idea of what people want, then it's not much use.

In the future, changes to the EU Treaties should be on a case-by-case basis, and not general reform Treaties. These would have the advantage of having clear aims that can be debated, and people would have a better understanding of the role the EU plays, and discuss whether it should play a bigger/different/smaller role in that area. This doesn't escape all the problems of uncertain outcomes, but it does greatly reduce them.

In/Out referendums are like general treaty reforms, even if it asks a clear underlying question. This is because the different options to membership - nicely summed up by Jon as the Norwegian, Swiss and US options - are complex results. Nosemonkey has written about Norway and Switerland, and some of the issues with their position. I'll try and write on their relationships with the EU soon (because they have different and complex relationships), but essentially if you're building a single market, it requires common rules, which in turn require common legislation, which in turn requires a common decision-making process.

Switching from EU to EEA membership means joining the internal market but not being part of the institutions that shape it, which is a loss of political power and autonomy.

As Jon points out, the withdrawalist side has to have a case for the alternative which can be debated - without this alternative, the referendum becomes a farce of decision-making. "Do you want the UK to leave the EU?" would translate into "Do you hate the EU?", since it would essentially ask people to state their opinion, rather than actually make a choice.

It would also be unfair to the withdrawalist side. The reason why some supporters of EU membership also support an in/out referendum is that it might be winnable and put the question of membership to rest. Given the non-choice described above, and the general indifference of people to the EU, a yes-leaning "meh" might be the outcome. This wouldn't let the withdrawalist side put their case forward properly, and it wouldn't result in an outcome that would be very meaningful.

Since membership is the status quo, it is essentially for withdrawalist to come up with a case for a non-Member State UK that they want to put to referendum. Until the withdrawalist side come up with an alternative to put to the vote, holding a referendum is pointless, and supporting a referendum without a clear question is merely a more principled-looking way of political point-scoring, whatever side of the debate you're on.


  1. I couldn’t disagree more with you.

    The arguments you use are the same that were used by disappointed yes-voters after the 2005 French referendum: "No-voters didn't answer the question they were asked". That’s taking no-voters childish, that’s in no way honest to suggest that.

    Referenda are not perfect, but citizens are not dumb: they abstain if they don’t know what the polls are about (that’s precisely the reason why they don't vote for eurosceptics at EP elections, but simply abstain). I regret the 2005 vote, but I could only welcome the fact that so many French people tried to understand the constitution, its implications, its logics or lack of logics, etc. The discussions were lively, but it was the first time that the average Joe could discuss about Europe in this country.

    The constitution was not too “complex” for citizens to understand. That’s not the reason why it failed. The reason why it failed is because the constitution didn’t go with any political project. It was just a technocratic compromise, let’s admit that. Even Barroso, even Chirac weren't convinced, so why on Earth should voters be convinced? People read the long blabla about values and principles and procedures on the first 5 pages, and understood: “there’s nothing for us in it. Then, for whom is this supposed to be?”. At least that’s how most of the no voters I know explain their vote.

    With this in mind, you say “In the future, changes to the EU Treaties should be on a case-by-case basis, and not general reform Treaties”.
    First, I think it is hard to imagine such a situation, because new treaties are always compromises: “give me more Parliament and you’ll get a European Council president”, “save my finances and I’ll give you the right to liquidate my economy”…
    Second, I think general reform treaties could become popular if only they contained a clear (but not necessarily precisely limited) political project on which one or several political leaders engaged their responsibility.

    I think if EU membership is an issue in the UK, pro-Europeans shouldn’t be shy on that, because the membership question is a clear and understandable one (instead of stupid referenda on electoral systems, which interest only law-makers). You say that withdrawalist should state clearly what their project is. To me, withdrawing from the EU is already clear in itself, people will understand the alternative, and will not vote because “they hate the EU”, but because they want to leave it.

  2. It's not taking voters to be childish to say that they should be given a straight choice between two alternatives in a referendum. This argument isn't primarily based on voters not voting on the question asked, but on the inability to tell afterwards what they wanted from the referendum because the referendum was poorly phrased - which impacts on the character of the campaign.

    For example, in the Lsibon Treaty I referendum in Ireland, the No campaign actively promoted the slogan "If you don't know, vote no." as well as vague assertions that "we can get a better deal", without ever saying what that better deal would be.

    Given the complexity of the Treaty,* and the skewed campaign, a lot of people voted No because they didn't feel sufficiently informed about the Treaty. Most of the people who abstained did so because they felt that they weren't informed, but this was also the major reason for voting No. Similiarly, any simply asking whether or not to withdraw, people might vote No on the basis that the alternative isn't clear, which is unfair to the withdrawist side as it deprives them of a unified case, OR the people vote Yes, but it's not clear what kind of relationship might replace membership.

    Since it is important to discuss these alternatives while deciding whether or not to withdraw, voters lose their power to effectively participate in the decision-making process when they are not allowed to make a clear decision. After the Lisbon Treaty the Oireachtas (Irish Parliament) has to set up a committee to not only decide what to do next, but to establish what reasons lay behind the voter's voting choices! Not being able to clearly define the consequences of both the Yes and No options therefore treats voters poorly as it (1) does not present a scenario where they can fully weight up all the pros and cons with great cretainty and (2) removes them from the decision-making process later when the elite peers into the entrails of the result to see why the voters voted that way, and what to do about it next. This defeats a great deal of the purpose of having a referendum.

    Finally, by voting on issues that change the EU, it empowers national parliaments/voters more, in that they can consider what kind of functions they want the EU to perform. This doesn't mean that there cannot be bundles of issues - e.g. you could have the composition of the EP, number of MEPs per country and the composition of the Commission as part of one reform, but changes to competences in separate reforms. However, the issues should be separated more. You say that voters did not find anything in the big, general reforms for them, but assert that the grand horse-trading is the only way to achieve reforms. Good luck trying to create a reform package that voters feel is aimed at them!

    There will always be some horse-trading, but I think that the EU has reached a stage of development where there doesn't need to be grand changes anymore, except perhaps in the case of a proposed federation (which might require reforms to large areas of the EU as well as creating a federation). By voting on single issues or small reform packages, the average Joe will be able to debate the different functions of the EU and shape how it works for the citizen. Over time, it could help bring the EU closer to the citizen.

    *To say something is complex (and I don't think that it is an invalid description of a document that is still being poured over by legal academics) is not to insult the voter, but without clear alternatives or a good time scale for people to debate things through it is hard to be certain of the quality of some referendums. This goes for pro-Treaty as well as anti-Treaty votes - arguments of scaremongering come from both directions.

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  4. Membership is the status quo only because the electorate were conned into it. I had an interesting twitter discussion with the two gentlemen in question today too.

    I am not an economist and I don't have a degree in politics or political history but I do and have paid taxes to enable a democratically elected government to represent me. However, I do expect to be consulted when any major decisions are being taken on my behalf. It's the very least I can expect when the service itself is so costly and I am not allowed to "opt out".

    Quite simply, I am not happy with the service that I am paying for.

    As requested, here are two links from withdrawalists who are eminently more qualified than I to put their points across.

    One deals with the economics and the other deals with the loss of personal freedom's which I expect to enjoy in return for my continued funding of the project. This one is of personal interest to me as I was born a free woman and not a serf or slave.

    Freedom in Jeopardy

    EFTA or EU

    I await your analysis and comments with interest.

  5. @Eurocentrics

    Democrats don't try to twist the question when they don't like the answer.

    When the Quebec nationalist party asked for a referendum on independence, nobody refused saying: "No, you won't get a referendum on independence, because what would independence mean? Instead, we'll make a referendum on the new partnership you propose to establish with Canada once we're independent".
    The question “what we’d do after” is something opponents should ask and insist on during the campaign as part of the debate, but imposing it as the referendum question instead of the original question would without any doubt be seen as manipulation. Quite rightly.

    I understand your concern about the “what if”. What if they reject EU membership? But we have to accept that making political choices doesn’t work like making a business model. While people ask for independence, reject treaties, or try to get rid of Mubarak or Ben Ali, they do not necessarily want to reconsider their choice because of a lack of clear view of what comes after. That’s why they put politicians in difficult situations, but that’s politics.

    And how could withdrawalists have any idea of what they would be able to negotiate with the EU once the UK is independent? There are far too many unknown variables in this equation.

    The way the consequences of the No vote in 2008 had to be managed in Ireland just reflects the lack of leadership on the constitutional process.

    I have examples of general reform packages that were both a good compromise (but I wouldn’t say a result of horse-trading!) satisfying all and represented a clear political project: The single European act, and the Maastricht treaty. At that time, there was somebody in charge. I don’t see why this would be impossible today.

    All the more so as there are still need for large scale reforms. I'm not talking about a federation. I'm talking about a pan-European constituency, about revising the protocol on privileges and immunities, about setting up an energy community, about a single EU president, about a single EU high representative on monetary issues, about suppressing the EESC and/or CoR, about adjustments to the codecision procedure, and I'm not mentioning a new extension of QMV or codecision. All these ideas for treaty changes have been proposed recently. All represent major reforms.

  6. @ Aymetrics

    In my earlier comment I said that that I wasn't opposed to referendums on a "package deal" as long as the package deal was based around the changes needed to make an area of policy work (i.e. change in power actually limited, but there could be other institutional changes to balance the powers between the institutions/give the EP more power , etc - but all changes would be related to the single issue). In the Eurocrisis context a grand bargain treaty will be needed, but the treaty (and therefore referendum choice) should be retricted to the type and functioning of the economic union people want, rather than, say, also including how the EU works on security policy and transborder crime too.

    @ Sue

    I'm not against voters being consulted - rather I'm debating a much narrower point on *how* they're consulted. Since a key issue in the UK is that it's contested whether or not consent has been given for certain aspects of the EU, surely rather than a single referendum that gives an unclear outcomes and means that power over what happens next remains largely with the elite, it would be better to hold a series of referendums on UK participation in all EU areas (i.e. foreign policy, internal market and environment, transborder crime, Schengen, the Euro). Then politicians would have a clear negotiating position on what areas UK voters would consent to. It is also more likely to settle the question politically, as there would be less of a vague "rebalancing" area to exploit by supporters of either side of the debate.