Supranationalism | Legitimacy | Elections | Constitution | Federalism | Referendums

Every time someone talks about a referendum on an EU matter, look very very carefully indeed at precisely what question they’re proposing to ask, and the circumstances in which they’re proposing to ask it.

The game with referendums is always to deny the public the right to choose on any actual relevant question.

Imagine it were proposed that the EU modify its institutional arrangements in a way which is not supported by the general public in a particular member state, but that a tiny minority of vicious cranks, let us call them, say, Europhiles, favour this change. Those few in favour of the change can propose a referendum about something else, such as mere membership of the EU.

They do this time and time again. A few previous times are documented on my blog already.

And here they are, at it again with Greece: you’re not allowed to have a referendum on the bailout package, only on Eurozone membership.

The effect of this is that the people get no say, whatsoever over the rules that affect their lives. Cui bono?

Legitimacy of refedendums

Leaving the EU and staying in are both unknowns. By default, leaving the EU means staying in the EEA, EFTA, ECHR and WTO and in NATO so the UK would continue to be bound by the associated rules. Supporters of EU withdrawal will be able to conflate the benefits of EU withdrawal with the benefits of withdrawal from EEA, EFTA, and, sadly, ECHR, unless there’s a particularly long lead-up to the referendum.

I count myself as someone who thinks the UK should withdraw from the EU, and indeed that the EU should be abolished, but simultaneously as someone who supports making the EU more democratic, even if that makes it harder to withdraw. The EU withdrawalists owe it to the public to produce the 1000 page document setting out the cost-benefit analysis of withdrawal, but this is very expensive. It’s not as though EU conservatives (that is, those who want to remain members) have produced a comprehensive analysis of the benefits of the status quo, however, so there is fault on both sides.

We will end up with a snap referendum, like the AV referendum, where the racist lies on both sides are repeated for a few short weeks and then the public votes on an undebated proposition. Imagine what it’s like, coming from a country which uses AV, and being told you’re not a democracy.

It is nevertheless right to question whether a referendum is the right mechanism. In countries with sensible constitutions (that is, Ireland, Australia, Japan and a few others), constitutional change can only be effected by referendums, so the public are accustomed to being consulted on constitutional matters, and can rest secure that their country’s constitution cannot be subverted by a temporary majority among politicians. In the UK, however, the tradition is to effect changes to the constitutional relationship with external powers such as the EU by stealth or deceit: there was no election or referendum about joining the EU (unlike in newer member states), there was one referendum about the terms of membership, and no further consultation about constitutional changes effected by treaty or judicial malpractice. On the contrary, Brown ratified the Lisbon Treaty having falsely promised a referendum on its predecessor treaty.

If it’s Ok to lie to the public about whether they’ll get a referendum on constitutional changes, and Ok to join the EEC without an election or referendum, it’s Ok to just withdraw without a referendum either. It’s not like anyone would believe David Cameron’s promise of a referendum anymore anyway.

I’m sure that some of the Europhiles were delighted by the farce of the AV referendum, as it will have discredited referendums in general.

The benefit of doing things by referendum is that it counteracts the ability of the business lobby to capture the political parties to prevent the withdrawal decision being taken.


To clarify what I meant by staying in the EU being an unknown:

The EU is becoming unstable: the failure of the Euro is undeservedly going to discredit the EU more generally, as will failures over immigration. This is for reasons similar to Dani Rodrik’s trilemma of the world economy: you can have only two of democracy, national sovereignty and economic integration (though as it happens, I disagree with him).

The EU has no mechanism to prevent it from acquiring ever-increasing competences, nor any mechanism for subjecting these to democratic control. It follows that it is stuck on a collision course with the right of people to control their own lives, so opposition to it will increase.

The question is whether an orderly subjection of the EU to democratic discipline and the rule of law is still possible, or whether it will break apart chaotically and peacefully like the Soviet Union. We have a situation where 27 national elites hold vetos on all sorts of matters, which in a real crisis will prove as paralytic as the old Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth system of giving every single aristocrat a veto on everything.

As a proportion of world trade, the EU is declining, so the incentives to get outside the tariff wall and trade freely with the rest of the world will only increase. If the UK were to leave, it would be doing so at a time when other member states would also be considering their options. There may well be a widespread acceptance that the current arrangements haven’t worked, and a willingness to be much more flexible with member states fed up with full EU membership.

I’d be unsurprised if Germany didn’t just lose patience with the EU one day and abruptly quit, whilst the Brits were still trying to fudge an evolutionary compromise on their way away from the centre of the EU.

Of course originally the Government claimed that most of the new treaty was just a “tidying-up exercise”, not important enough to warrant a referendum, until not having a referendum started to become a political liability. So if you’re a UK voter, you are thus faced, in the words of Tom Koerner, with proposals “simultaneously so minor that they are unworthy of your attention and so important that failure to pass them will lead to unspeakable catastrophe.”

But what is interesting and concerning is the presentation of the evolution of EU treaties as a matter on whose details the electorate has no voice: “You can vote aye or no to this treaty, but if you vote no, you’ll be kicked out and won’t get a chance to vote aye to an amended proposal incorporating your concerns”. You can’t vote for any Europe other than the one on offer, and if you don’t, there’ll be a catastrophe.

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