The defeat of Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s constitutional reforms have been widely taken as yet another referendum defeat for the European Union (EU), threatening to destabilise the Italian banking system, and through it, the Eurozone itself. One wag on Twitter observed it was time to ‘have a fucking referendum on whether to ban over-confident male prime ministers from holding referendums.’ Here we have a succinct and common view from the pro-EU left of referendums in today’s Europe. Referenda are seen as brash, bold, dicey endeavours, to be expected from immature, testosterone-fuelled male politicians that risk stoking populist insurrection and ballot box revolts, in pointed contrast to the cautious matriarchal management of say, Angela Merkel. Referenda are seen as the tool of irresponsible populists and demagogues: US president-elect Donald Trump courted ex-UKIP leader Nigel Farage and memorably promised a ‘Brexit-plus-plus-plus’ for his election victory, seeking to turn the US presidential elections into a referendum on the ‘Washington elite’.
Yet if referenda are the battering rams of the populist-barbarians-at-the-gates, they have become remarkably common features of the European political order over the last thirty-odd years. To name but a few, we have had the Dutch (2005, 2016), Irish (2001, 2002), French (2005), Scottish (2015), Greek (2015), Danish (1993, 2015), British (2011, 2016) and Hungarian (2016) referenda, with the possibility of more Dutch, French and Italian referenda to follow over the next few years. Why have the member states of the notoriously technocratic EU so frequently resorted to asking for direct popular mandates?
The growing frequency of referenda since the turn of the century reflects the EU’s deepening and broadening since the end of the Cold War. On the one hand, European integration processes have intensified the use of referendums in those states that require direct votes under the terms of national constitutions (France, Ireland, and Denmark). The establishment of monetary union also required referenda in Denmark (2000) and Sweden (2003). On the other hand, expansion eastwards and southwards also required direct popular votes in the candidate countries. Thus the EU enlargement of 2004 saw no less than nine referenda in the aspirant member states. European reliance on referenda was further extended by the EU when it notoriously demanded repeat referenda in Ireland (2001, 2002) until the desired outcome was secured with respect to the Treaty of Nice. Remainers in the UK, still hoping to thwart Brexit, are now demanding another referendum, this time on the terms of Brexit. In short, long before Farage, Cameron, Renzi or Orban became leading political figures, the referendum had been entrenched as an archetypal tool of European governance across the continent, all under the benign guidance of Brussels. Whatever criticisms we may we wish to offer of referenda as a tool of government – and there are many – such arguments need to be directed against the EU and its supporters at least as much as against any anti-EU populist seeking to undermine the foundations of the status quo.
To be sure, not all of these referenda directly concerned any given country’s relationship with the EU. The Scottish referendum for instance, concerned whether or not Scotland would remain part of the UK. Yet even here, the EU was woven through the fabric of Scottish politics and embedded in the choice Scottish voters had to make. The EU has accelerated the process of regionalisation and decentralisation seen in European states since the 1970s, thereby systematically reducing the political risks of independence. This development has been keenly exploited by the secessionist Scottish National Party (SNP), which packaged the prospect of self-determination in the protective layers offered by ‘independence … in Europe’. How likely an independent Scotland would be able to secure fast-track membership of the EU also doubtless figured in voter’s calculations as to the risks and benefits of breaking away from London.
Given all this, it seems safe to say that referenda have become a structural feature of the European political order, a characteristic of the transformation of Europe’s decayed nation-states into the member-states of the European Union. According to Chris Bickerton’s theory, the EU has blossomed in the detritus left by the decay of representative democracy at the national level. As the organic links connecting states and societies have crumbled away leaving a ‘void’ between governments and the governed, the member-states of the EU have had resort to other means in order to secure some measure of popular legitimacy. That the EU should be so reliant on a tool as characteristically authoritarian as the plebiscite should come as no surprise; the EU is after allthe form of government that has arisen as representative democracy has declined.
Referenda allow political elites to strip-mine popular legitimacy with tightly controlled questions that they devise themselves, while offering the voters limited options and avoiding the flux of ongoing contestation between and within political parties. As one-off political choices, referenda offer rich symbolic rewards: the EU could claim a popular mandate in the chain of referenda that heralded its expansion eastwards in 2004. This was despite the fact that the process of accession typically strengthened executives at the expensive of legislatures and required parliaments to swallow thousands of pages of community law – the notorious acquis – all at once, making a mockery of the very meaning of passing legislation.
The plebiscitarian state emerging in Europe represents the further decay of the EU member-state, and is the logical conclusion of the degradation of democracy. Nor should it come as any surprise that the populists have succeeded in turning the technocrats’ favoured instrument of popular legitimation against them: populism and technocracy feed off each other, consuming representative party politics. A Remainer alliance is now forming in Britain, rallying around the call for a second referendum. Led by the Liberal Democrats but extending to the SNP, rebel Tories and Labour MPs, they seek not to overturn Brexit but rather indirectly to thwart it. If they succeed, they will accomplish what the populists have not, which is to complete Britain’s transformation into a plebscitarian state: Britain will thus retain the plebiscitarian political structure of the typical member-state even as we formally break from the EU.