The European Union, its predecessors and its comprising nations have made a lot of crucial decisions about European integration without consulting their citizenry. And of course, when these nations saw fit to consult their citizens, the votes often tended to derail the European plan.
The Danes initially rejected the Maastricht Treaty which created the European Union. Denmark (again) and Sweden were the only two European countries to hold referendums on joining the Eurozone; both politely declined. Ireland voted against both the treaties of Nice (2001) and Lisbon (2008), passing the latter with a second referendum and some concessions. And perhaps the most the telling example, referendums were held in France and the Netherlands in 2005 on the creation of a European Constitution. Both electorates rejected the proposal and the plan was promptly scrapped by the European Union. And of course the list can go on.
Clearly the embrace of direct democracy has tended to have counter-intuitive outcomes for the progression of the European project, and Brexit in that regard, is one in a long trend of unsuccessful referenda for the European elite. Perhaps the only surprise should be that the UK is actually leaving the Union, and not the actual ‘No’ vote which is evidently a lot more common than many are prepared to admit. But this isn’t all.
With increased voter anger at economic misfortune, immigration and asylum seekers, fringe political parties have recognised that referendums are an incredibly powerful tool to woo disenfranchised voters, creating an opportunity for these parties to present themselves as parties which truly reflect the hopes and fears of their electorates.
Greece, which rejected at the ballot the option of further austerity imposed by the EU, also had the least favourable attitude toward the EU in a YouGov poll at 27%. The euro-scepticism goes deeper, only 38% of French and 47% of Spanish citizens hold favourable views on the EU. Elsewhere the attitudes were more positive but there have been touchy issues particularly on the question of absorbing refugees in Eastern Europe. In Hungary where Prime Minister Viktor Orban managed to organise a referendum on the question, the Hungarian population overwhelming voted against (95%), despite the fact that the referendum was non-binding.
In a speech the former EU Commission President Barroso gave to the European Parliament on the Lisbon Treaty, he argued that,
“it is more obvious than ever that even the greatest powers of Europe cannot alone tackle the challenges of globalisation. It is obvious that more than ever we need a strong European Union”
The polls suggest that most of the EU’s citizens seem to share this view. What’s becoming increasingly clear however is that an un-bridgeable gulf exists between the type of EU the European elite envision, and an EU which reflects the diverse hopes and aspirations of the majority of its citizenry. Until then, referendums which are likely to be proposed by opportunistic opposition parties, civil society organisations and unpopular governments, will to continue to menace the progression of the European project, potentially grounding it to an unceremonious halt.