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Curing the EU's Democratic Deficit?

Kyle James, DW-WORLD.DEJune 7, 2005

The referendums in France and the Netherlands on the EU constitution gave citizens a real, if disapproving, voice in the EU's future. But some question if referendums are a good way to chart the EU's future direction.

Let the people decide everything?Image: AP

Last week's ballots in both France and the Netherlands, in which majorities rejected the EU constitution, were a blow to the EU elites, just as many voters intended them to be. The charter, hammered out in tortuous fashion over several years, went down to defeat in two of the EU's founding countries: 55 percent of the French said "non"; 61.1 percent of the Dutch screamed "nee."

For many voters, the referendums were a way to express the widely held view that the EU is an imperious bureaucracy that is unresponsive to the concerns of everyday people.

"No one seems to be in charge and no one seems to be listening to us," Iwan Amier, a 41-year-old limousine driver in the Netherlands, told Reuters. He voted against the constitution to send a message to those in charge that he does exist and wants a say in how the European Union moves forward.

"These referendums have been an earthquake for the European elite," said Carsten Berg of the Brussels-based Initiative and Referendum Institute Europe. "They have shown those in Brussels, who seem to think everything about European integration is going fine, that out there among the population there is a real difference of opinion."

Frankreich Referendum über die EU-Verfassung: Ja oder Nein?
A woman walks past campaign posters in reference to the referendum on the EU constitution in a street of Aix-en-Provence, southern France, Thursday, May 26, 2005.Image: AP

The referendums in France and the Netherlands stirred a charged debate over the EU that has not been heard in years, if ever. Generally, mention the European Union and responses from average citizens range from a blank stare to a loud yawn. But particularly in France, the two months of campaigning triggered a passionate political debate about the bloc, with both sides sensing that the referendum was a moment to define France's future.

The right tool?

But that is precisely one of the reasons some wonder if an issue as complicated and technical as the EU constitution, which ran into the hundreds of pages and was impenetrable to all but the most advanced of technocrats, is best settled with a popular referendum that could easily be sidetracked.

In France, many said their ballots were based just as much on national issues as they were on the actual contents of the constitution, which remained murky at best for many voters.

"I'm not sure if referendums were the best way to do this," said Marco Incerti, a spokesman for the Center for European Policy Studies in Brussels. "If you look at the arguments that were used in the campaign, many had very little to do with the constitution itself. Citizens saw it as one more chance to protest against the government."

He added that campaigners opposed to the constitution were able to rely on a widespread lack of understanding about the charter to sway people to the "no" camp with specious arguments, while some national politicians used the same tactics to gain political points at home.

Frankreiche EU-Referendum Frau vor Plakaten mit Ja- und Nein Aufrufen
Image: AP

"It's a good thing if the voters in the EU states exercise their right to decide," he said. "What is not so encouraging, is the fact that some people were voting on the basis of false information. We need a lot more education in the EU, a lot more information going out to the voter if the referendum issue is going to work the way it should."

Onward, ratification process?

What is still unclear is whether the constitution's ratification process will continue. Most agree that the charter in its current form has little, if any, chance for survival. At the upcoming regular summit of EU leaders in Brussels on June 16 and 17, EU leaders may decide to scrap all the other planned referendums.

"The leaders of the 25 member states could conclude that it would be a useless and even painful exercise if it appeared that successive referendums would produce more 'no' results," Portuguese Foreign Minister Diogo Freitas do Amaral told Portuguese state television.

But it appears that some of those countries where referendums were planned are still anxious to exercise their democratic right, even if it means giving Brussels another bloody nose. A poll published in the newspaper Politiken over the weekend shows that a 53 percent of Danes still want to go ahead with the vote set for Sept. 27, even though four separate surveys have indicated that a majority in Denmark, who earlier favored the EU constitution, now oppose it.

EU-Referendum Frankreich Wahlurne
Image: AP

In addition, Ireland, Luxembourg, Poland and Portugal are still scheduled to hold ballots. Britain announced Monday that it was shelving plans for a referendum on the constitution until its fate became clearer.

According to Carsten Berg, such a decision does little to increase democracy in a Europe already accused by many to be suffering from a "democratic deficit." Even if the other countries look like they will say 'no', he said, their voices should still be heard.

"It is unfair that only the Dutch and French should decide for other Europeans," he said.

According to him, the referendum process around the constitution was flawed in itself, with sometimes one-sided campaigns with more populism than policy content. He added that the idea of staggering the votes over almost two years, a strategic choice on the part of EU officials, was mistaken from the 'yes' camp perspective as it had the opposite effect of what was intended.

The staggered votes were meant to unleash a domino effect since the countries that were thought firmly on the 'yes' side were scheduled early on. Their affirmative votes would, in theory, encourage voters in other member states to also check the 'yes' box when their turns came.

"It all went wrong. The dominos fell the other way," Berg said.

Here to stay

Although politicians right now are in a state of shock regarding last week's ballots, Berg and Marco Incerti of CEPS both believe that in the long run, the rough-and-tumble world of the referendum is here to stay and politicians will have to get used to it.

Protest gegen EU Verfassung, Referendum in Holland
Dutch cows wear protest signs against the referendum on the EU constitution in Oosthuizen, 32 km north of Amsterdam, Wednesday, May 25, 2005. The Dutch word "Boe" refers to the sound cows make and, like the English "boo," signals disapproval.Image: AP

"People enjoyed sending a message to their leaders, we saw that in the high turnout rates," said Incerti. "It would be difficult for politicians to say, 'no, we are going to take it back.'"

Democracy is not always pretty, added Berg, nor does it always run in the direction that politicians and bureaucrats plan.

"Referendums can improve European democracy," he said, adding that that was highly unlikely, if Europeans actually vote against the EU project in the end, "well, that's democracy too. The people in Brussels will have to respect that."