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Wreckerendum (1)


To some people a referendum seems the very height of democracy – simply ask everyone what they think, count the votes for and against, and you know where you are. I don’t think things are that simple.

A lot depends on the topic. On issues with an immediate and profound impact on a country’s or region’s future or way of government, such as whether to become independent, or to join or leave a supranational body such as the European Union (and so surrender or regain some of your independence), or adopt a new national flag (as New Zealand has just decided not to), it surely does make sense to check everyone’s views before going ahead – if only so you can say afterwards ‘You’ve all had your chance to say yes or no’. A referendum was the only way to settle the divisive issue of Scottish independence; and, whatever Spain’s former premier Mariano Rajoy may like to pretend, a  referendum is just as surely the only way to settle the same equally divisive issue in Catalonia. At the same time, voting has to be limited to the part of the country concerned; since its inhabitants are invariably a minority who cannot gain independence by democratic means within the larger country’s institutions (where there is almost certainly a built-in majority in favour of keeping the country in one piece), they need an opportunity to decide the issue among themselves. If a clear majority of them want out, there is little to be gained by keeping them in against their stated wishes. That’s why it would have been wrong to let all of Britain’s citizens vote on Scottish independence – Scotland would never have had a chance.

By the same token, a referendum is needed to settle the matter of whether Britain should leave the EU; and it would be wrong to submit the question to the parliaments or the people of the other 27 member states. Finally, though I did not think so at the time, each country should have held its own referendum before joining, and before replacing its national currency with the euro. Perhaps the EU and the euro would then never have come into being (both of which I would regret); but there would be a lot less of the wrangling and hand-wringing we are now seeing.

Then there is the question of whether referendums should be held throughout the EU whenever a new country wants to join. As things stand, the matter is submitted to the national parliaments of all the member states, which must all say ‘yes’. Just one ‘no’ vote – perhaps by a country with a grudge and an axe to grind – is enough to keep the new applicant out. France, Greece, Italy and Slovenia have all used this right of veto – or blackmail? – to prevent or delay applications by their neighbours (Britain, Macedonia, Slovenia and Croatia respectively).

Perhaps, in the interests of democracy and international harmony, there is no way round this. But what if every addition to, or subtraction from, the EU were submitted for approval by all of the Union’s citizens, rather than their elected parliaments? It seems certain that at least some of today’s member states – mainly those in eastern Europe – would never have got in.

And this raises the issue of how democratic referendums really are. As with medical procedures, the operative term here is informed consent – with the emphasis on informed. The reason why countries do not hold referendums on every single issue is not just that it would take up so much of people’s time they would have little time left for anything else, but above all that not everyone is competent to judge the many complicated issues that arise in our complex societies. That’s why we have elected representatives, who are presumed to be better informed than the average citizen, and can – if they do their jobs properly – devote most of their time to these issues. They are therefore allowed to get on with it for periods of four or more years, with appropriate supervision from the hopefully free media, after which we citizens have a chance to throw them out and replace them.

I once saw a Dutch anarchist poster with the mind-bogglingly stupid slogan Vote, then shut up for four years, plus a drawing of a gagged and straitjacketed ‘average citizen’. It is such simplistic, and dangerous, feelings that our proliferating populist parties gleefully play on.

In six weeks’ time, on 6 April, Holland’s adult citizens (of whom I am one) will be asked to vote on whether the association agreement between Ukraine and the EU should or should not be approved. Here we come to the crucial matter of informed consent. I must confess I was unaware that this referendum would even be held. I follow online news sites in various countries and languages, but I seem to have missed this one – perhaps because the agreement is really no big deal. Then today my hairdresser asked me how I was going to vote in ‘the Ukraine referendum’. When I asked what he was talking about, he told me Dutch citizens were being asked to decide whether or not Ukraine should join the EU.

This instantly raised various questions in my mind: (1) Why had I not read somewhere that Ukraine had applied for EU membership? (2) Why was a not particularly developed country with a population approaching 50 million being considered for membership in the first place? (3) How much of Ukraine was going to join – the whole of it, including Russian-annexed Crimea and other disputed eastern areas, or just the undisputed ones? In other words, had Ukraine decided to abandon those areas to the Russians? And again, why had I not read about such an earth-shattering development? (4) Why was such an issue being submitted to a referendum, rather than just approval by the Dutch parliament? To my knowledge this had never happened before in the 60-year history of the EU. (5) Was Holland the only country where such a referendum would be held? If so, how would Holland be able to decide on the matter, which was quite obviously one for the whole Union to consider? If not, why had I not heard anything about similar referendums in the other 27 member states?

My hairdresser then eerily spoke the Dutch words for ‘referendum’ and ‘Ukraine’ into his smartphone (a method I’d never seen anyone use before, but no doubt will in the future), and up came various bits of information which he proceeded to read aloud – including the crucial fact that the referendum was about an association agreement with Ukraine. I explained to him that the EU had such agreements with many countries, few of which had subsequently been allowed to apply for EU membership, let alone join.

But I still didn’t see why – and still didn’t quite believe – that Holland was holding a referendum on the issue. It had never happened before, so why now? This was simply a common-or-garden trade agreement of the kind that national parliaments approve almost daily. OK, this was Ukraine, a geopolitically sensitive country – and such an agreement would clearly whip up the Russians’ fiction of being threatened by everyone else (hey Russia, if you’d just stop oppressing ethnic and sexual minorities, poisoning dissenting politicians, kidnapping other people’s customs officers, flying your bombers into other people’s airspace and annexing parts of other people’s countries, there’d be nothing to feel threatened about). But still….

While we were discussing all this – my hairdresser expressed surprise on learning that Ukraine had such an immense population – his next customer came in. She added to the confusion by telling us quite firmly that the referendum was not about whether Ukraine should join the EU (true), but about whether it should join the euro zone. To be sure, there are one or two countries that use the euro without being a member of the Union – notably Montenegro, which decided back in 1996 to use the German mark in place of its unstable Yugoslav dinar and automatically became part of the euro zone when Germany did. But I was fairly sure Ukraine was not in this category, given the problems the euro has been facing. Adding a relatively undeveloped and politically unstable country with nearly 50 million people to this already explosive mix would surely have caused untold disruption (Montenegro, in contrast, is a statelet with no hostile neighbours, and fewer inhabitants than Seville or Amsterdam). But normally, if you aren’t already a member of the EU, you can’t adopt the euro – and, as we know, some member states have chosen not to.

In any case, both my hairdresser and his next customer were already determined to vote ‘yes’ to whatever-it-was, out of a sense that Ukraine had already ‘suffered enough’ under the Soviet Union, the Nazis and a newly aggressive Russia (the almost certain use of Russian weapons – only Russia denies it – to shoot down a Malaysian airliner with hundreds of young Dutch holidaymakers on board has given people here something of a soft spot for Ukraine and Ukrainians). One way or another, Ukraine deserved a ‘good turn’.

The fact that neither person quite knew what they’d be voting for or against – and might not have known if I hadn’t told them, and maybe still don’t even believe – highlights the problem of ‘consulting the people’ about everything under the sun.

The other problem with this particular referendum is its disproportionately destructive potential. Like all the EU’s other ‘association agreements’, the one with Ukraine has already been ratified by every single member state – except Holland. The culprit is this country’s brand-new ‘advisory referendum’ act. The coalition party that has always pushed for referendums, D’66, finally got its way when this seemingly ur-democratic piece of legislation was enacted in 2015. In a country with 16 million people and 12.5 million voters, just 300,000 of them (one voter in 40) can now force a referendum to be held on any piece of legislation already adopted by parliament; and if 30% of the electorate (4 of the 12.5 million) turn out to vote, the result is valid – though not binding (since this is an advisory referendum act).

Over 400,000 valid signatures have been collected, so the referendum will duly take place in six weeks’ time; and most parliamentary parties have agreed to abide by the result. Fascinatingly, one of the two parties that have not so agreed – in what is a test case for the new policy it has done so much to get adopted – is the pro-referendum party par excellence, D’66. Then again, the same party was always strongly in favour of city mayors being elected, rather than dumped on them when has-been politicians had done their stint in The Hague; but when the party’s former leader left the national political arena he moved straight on to become the unelected mayor of the city I live in. As the Americans say, ‘go figure’ – or ‘why I am not surprised?’

Be all this as it may, if barely 2 million Dutch people (50.1% of the valid electorate, and just over a third of one percent of the EU population) bother to go to the polls and say ‘no’ to an agreement that many of them – take my hairdresser and his other customer – may not actually understand, the agreement will almost certainly have to be rejected on principle by a Dutch parliamentary majority. Its ratification by parliaments in the other 27 member states (none of which was required to hold a referendum) – including such rabid Euro-sceptics as Denmark and the United Kingdom – will then be for naught, for if just one country says ‘no’, that’s that.

This is the tail wagging the dog, big-time.

A similar misuse of the referendum occurred in Slovenia last Christmas (when I happened to be there). In March 2015 the national parliament had voted by a clear majority to make Slovenia the 21st country in the world where gay people could get married just like everyone else. But, before the law could come into force, opponents (essentially Catholic, and firmly backed by the purportedly non-political church) forced a referendum in the hope of getting it reversed. A piddling 20% of registered voters were required to turn out in order for the vote to be valid, and two thirds of those (chanting the usual ‘save the family’ and ‘save our children’ slogans) voted ‘no’. That was that, and the law has been ‘democratically’ withdrawn. Of course, I wish more people had taken the trouble to vote ‘yes’ – just another tenth of the electorate would have swung the pendulum the other way and allowed the new law to remain in force. But a badly designed referendum procedure allowed legislation duly enacted by the nation’s elected representatives to be shot down by an unrepresentative, bigoted minority.

The tail wagging the dog, wrecking what other people have worked so hard to achieve. Wreckerendum.

For eight years, from 1975 to 1983, I lived and worked in Switzerland, the cradle of referendum-based ‘direct democracy’. Hardly a month went by without ‘YES’ and ‘NO’ posters for national, cantonal or communal (local authority) referendums on everything from the price of bread to the sale of the country’s gold reserves. But what Switzerland had already begun to discover was ‘referendum fatigue’: people did not actually want to be consulted on all these various issues, and were turning out to vote in smaller and smaller numbers. The existing thresholds were not being reached. In an attempt to keep people voting and the illusion of Swiss direct democracy alive, the referendums were organised in quarterly bunches – but that simply gave you more things to think about, less time to think about each of them, and a tendency to vote with your gut on the day. Two classic examples:

(1) In 2009, Switzerland hit world headlines with its national referendum decision (‘popular vote’) to ban the building of minarets in addition to the four already built there. The vote passed with a turnout of barely 50%, and in most parts of the country the ‘yes’ votes were barely higher – some cantons voted ‘no’ by a higher majority. Anyway, all this did was give Switzerland an even nastier reputation than it already had as a centre of bigotry as well as ‘direct democracy’ (the two are almost certainly connected).

(2) In my first years in Switzerland, when the world was rather different, a ‘popular initiative’ gathered enough signatures to force a referendum calling for one Sunday a month to be car-free. Nationwide! In a country where car use was rampant and taken for granted (Geneva was recorded as the most ‘motorised’ city in Europe, if not the world), this was radical stuff; but the referendum turnout was low, and an astonishing 46% of the Swiss who did go to vote said ‘yes’. In the mid-1970s, Switzerland came within an ace of being the world’s most environment-friendly country.

It didn’t last – and knowing the Swiss as I did I could hardly believe the result (though I did wear a T-shirt supporting the cause). In any case, it made clear to me that the referendum system tended to give undue publicity and influence to the views of relatively small minorities, whether right or left. Much though I would have welcomed it, a car-free Sunday once a month would have been a distortion of Switzerland’s ethos at the time – and in that sense it was not democratic.

This is why – in my view rightly – many European countries have introduced electoral thresholds, to prevent weird or dangerous splinter groups from gaining too much influence over the democratic process. If you don’t get more than, say, 5% of the vote, your votes aren’t counted.

Unfortunately, Holland has no such threshold, and constantly has to cope with squabbling coalition governments. So it doesn’t surprise me that all us Dutch will be required to vote on Ukraine’s future on 6 April. Since the vote won’t be valid if we don’t make the 30% threshold, and since I’m basically happy that the EU should have an association agreement with Ukraine, just as it has with countries like Moldova and Georgia, I won’t vote – in the hope that the threshold won’t be reached, and hence the agreement will remain in force, Europe-wide.

Tactical voting, but that’s the way we have to think nowadays.



From → Media, Politics, Society

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