An argument on whether we need Referenda on EU Membership

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I was asked to submit my views on Debating Europe regarding the question “Do we need Referenda on EU Membership?“. Here is what I wrote:

There are a few problems with referenda that need be clarified before answering the principal question of whether EU membership should be decided through such a decision-taking process.

First a referendum though it has always been seen as the ultimate expression of democracy, isn’t in fact democratic, since people do not really put forward their desires and their ideas, but are rather called to decide on two predetermined alternatives they had no impact on. A referendum would have been democratic if the options included, where themselves the outcomes of localized direct decision making, using the power of the Internet and/or other media to collect the views of the everyday citizen at the lowest possible level. For as long as the options and the content of a referendum are decided by a selected minority that in many cases is comprised of unelected bodies completely detached from the individual voter, then such processes are democratic only in name not substance. But for argument’s sake let us assume that a referendum is indeed democratic and since we want to call our societies democracies we should use this method of decision-taking on a regular basis or at least on important issues. The second problem that immediately emerges exists in asymmetric information and the over-simplification of things that cannot be over-simplified.

Asymmetric information and technical difficulties: How can citizens decide on EU membership when they do not know every aspect of it? I am not saying that people are incapable of making the right decisions, I am only raising an issue of technicality since let us not forget that the EU Treaties comprise of a vast legal corpus which is hard even for law experts to grasp in full. Now let us assume that these documents are presented in a way that is understandable to everyone, to reach the next aspect of the technical issue: How can one evaluate the implications of these rules without having full or good knowledge of the issues these rules affect? How can one decide on CAP or Schengen or the Euro or any of EU realm of policies without knowing the direct and indirect effects and implications. This of course does not only apply to citizens but in many cases holds true for politicians and political parties.

Over-simplification: Albert Einstein famously said that “things should be made as simple as possible but not any simpler”. A mere “yes” or “no” on EU membership violates Einstein dictum in three ways: (a) It over-simplifies the EU itself. EU is not a monolithic organization. It rather consists of numerous institutions dealing with a variety of issues in a number of dimensions. In short the EU is a very complex nexus that involves diverse power groups of all sorts. So which EU will citizens be called to decide upon which again brings us to the question of asymmetric information, (b) It does not clarify in any way what are the costs and benefits of membership and of non-membership. A work which again requires a deep understanding and analysis of the EU and the state’s policies and objectives, (c) it over-simplifies the answers. The options the citizen is given in a referendum do not state his/her intentions or preferences. This is true not only in the case of a mere yes-no binary but also in more expanded answers. The point is that the options available will always be vague, allowing anyone to interpret them at will, effectively distorting the possible message citizens wanted to send, assuming they all had the same thing in mind when choosing a particular option which frankly speaking is never the case.

Let us consider for instance that all of the above are somehow dealt with so we can proceed to the fundamental question “Do we need Referenda on EU Membership?”. This question is in itself problematic for it fails to shed light on a series of interrelated issues. How will a referendum solve let’s say the crisis in Greece? Or how will it make the Common Agricultural Policy a rational plan of allocating resources, instead of the wasteful anachronism it now is? Or then again is a referendum a prudent option in times of social unrest where extreme sentiments often prevail over reason? Driving this train of thought towards its logical conclusion will only lead us to a mere “No”.

What we need in Europe is not referenda that ask vague things and provide dubious options; we need an organized civil society, critical and demanding citizens that will demand a bigger say at the lowest possible level, which will effectively cover a considerable part of the current democratic deficit of the EU. Democracy is not exercised every four-fives years or whenever there is a referendum. Democracy is an everyday struggle where every individual has the duty to decide on what the common good is, while at the same time effectively working for his/her own well-being.

A collective of bureaucrats sending dictates from a “command center” in Brussels is certainly not a good thing. However referenda are for sure not the answer to it. The illusion of choice a referendum gives does nothing to address the fundamental democratic problem of our times: that unscrupulous big interests have the capacity to influence in the any way they want our cumbersome, big governments/bureaucracies.

Issues are so subtle and complex that cannot be brought down to a mere binary of “yes or no”. This does not mean that citizens are incapable of making the right decisions for themselves. It is only a reminder that citizens need to become active in political life, so as to improve their states and eventually the EU as a whole.