Democracy (Terms and Conditions Apply): The European Union and Nation State Referendums

Gihan Elleray

The Current Situation in Greece

The Current Situation in Greece. Photo source: Olaf Kosinsky via Flickr Creative Commons.

‘If the European Union applied to join itself as a country, it would be rejected because it is too undemocratic’.

According to The Independent, David Cameron plans to hold Britain’s EU referendum in June 2016, less than a year away.  A cross-party parliamentary group featuring Members of Parliament from the Conservatives, Labour and UKIP has been formed with the aim of ensuring this referendum is both free from interference and fair for the electorate.  In this article we ask – is there a cause for concern when it comes to how Britain’s EU referendum will play out?

Referendums are a form of direct democracy – offering an electorate the rare opportunity to directly decide an outcome, rather than the electorate voting in a politician who represents them in forming an outcome.

In order to judge how the EU reacts to its member states holding referendums, we need to look at case examples of this.

Take the case of Ireland, who held a referendum in 2008 on whether Ireland would accept the Lisbon Treaty, which effectively established a constitutional underpinning in the EU.

The result of the 2008 referendum on the Lisbon Treaty was rejected by the Irish with a 53% ‘NO’ vote against a 46% ‘YES’ vote.

One might then think that the EU would accept the voice of a democratic nation state and not push through the Lisbon Treaty.  Not quite.  What was the response of the EU?  They simply held the referendum in Ireland again, because in the technocrats view, the Irish electorate chose the wrong answer.  More worryingly the spending limits for both the NO and YES camps in this second referendum were also distorted and unequal, allowing the EU to pour financial resources into the YES camp during the second referendum.  What was the result?  On the second attempt, the Irish accepted the Lisbon Treaty.

Indeed what is perhaps more disconcerting is a deeper examination of the Lisbon Treaty itself, which reveals the EU’s mismanagement and manipulation.  This is because the Lisbon Treaty is nothing more than a repackaging of the failed 2005 Constitutional Treaty.  This 2005 treaty failed because it was rejected by France and Denmark, through referendums held in both countries.  Both France and Denmark clearly decided they did not want to accept the Constitutional Treaty.  Unlike Ireland, in this case, the EU simply repackaged and rebranded the very things that France and Denmark rejected in the Constitutional Treaty and renamed it the Lisbon Treaty four years later, rather than force through a second referendum to accept the Constitutional Treaty.  So the technocrats leave their options open.

Moreover, one cannot discuss referendums and the EU without looking at what has just occurred in Greece.  The referendum produced a clear-cut result, though it may very well have been the most rapidly propagated referendum ever encountered.  Syriza did play the right tactic, with their finance minister Yanis Varoufakis not laying out the chips on the table in the negotiation process, but being the chip himself himself by resigning.  Greek opposition parties have also united in supporting Syriza, meaning the EU’s ideal vision of regime change is now redundant.  Yet, what appears to have happened is that the very terms which 61% of Greeks rejected are now exactly what they are going get.

European Council. Photo Source: Christos Dogas via Flickr Creative Commons.

Tspiras is now resting on a tightrope which is loosening day by day – he is relying on opposition support to accept the bailout.  In essence, the Greek referendum has ultimately led to the grand result of: nothing.  It is clear that Tsipras did not intend to depart the eurozone, whilst Yaroufakis did and hence his resignation swiftly followed when the two of them realised this. There is no way in which a firm left-wing government, however democratic, can function inside a European capitalist class.  Greece is facing the paradox of an ultra-left-wing government which is shackled within a right-wing capitalist and corporatist class in the EU.

On a final note, it is obvious that the EU brings benefits and one should always consider that before forming a judgement.  However, these benefits must not then be used to blanket the EU’s inherent inadequacies.  The EU has patently demonstrated that, when left to its own unfettered tendencies, democracy can be absent amongst the mindsets of its elites.  Therefore, rigorous oversight must underpin any attempt to achieve a fair referendum for the UK.

If Britons cease to ensure this referendum is free and fair, then the result is already decided, months before polling day even arrives.

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