The problem with referendum-inspired democracy is similar to the problem of the security strategies centered on nuclear weapons: both referenda and nuclear weapons can be key tools in situations of existential danger but when used as conventional weapons, they might also present a risk. Referenda make a lot of sense when societies are confronted with critical ethical questions like should gay marriages be legalized, abortion banned or death penalty re-introduced. They could be the only source of legitimacy when it comes to issues that could determine the direction in which a country is going, like Scottish independence or Britain’s membership in the EU. But the casual usage of referenda for much narrower policy issues can be harmful. We might very soon be witnessing how such referenda can harm and even evoke the collective suicide of the European Union.
The forthcoming Dutch referendum on the European Union’s Association Agreement with Ukraine, scheduled for April 6 2016, is a classical case in point. If we trust the opinion polls, only a minority of Dutch voters are interested to take part in the referendum. Most of those who will decide to vote will have a very vague idea about the texts of the Association Agreement. They will however certainly have strong opinions about the desirability of the European Union's expansion or EU’s policy with respect to Ukraine.
If the majority of the minority that will participate in the April 6 referendum decides to reject the Association Agreement with Ukraine, the Netherlands government will have a tough choice - to ignore the opinion of the people (legally possible, but in the current situation of distrust hardly recommended), or to adopt the choice of the voters. If the Dutch government does the latter and vetoes the Association Agreement, this will mean that less than 2 percent of European voters will determine the future of European Union’s relations with Ukraine. Could this be called a victory of democracy? I doubt it: we better call it a picturesque example of how a political tool - meant to support democratic decision-making - in the complex reality of the European Union can in fact produce undemocratic results, thus questioning (once more) European Union's democratic legitimacy.
A small minority of EU's citizens decides for Europe as a wholeOpposite to referenda's design as a democratic tool, in the context of the common European politics it proves to make our democracies not more responsive but more ungovernable.
In 2011 the former Prime Minister of Greece George Papandreou wanted to put on a referendum concerning the austerity measures required by Brussels and the IMF. Most of the governments of the Eurozone were scandalized by this attempt to make the Greek voter the ultimate decision maker on the fate of the Eurozone. Four years later Greeks did reject the new agreement with the creditors on a referendum, only to see it adopted a few weeks later.
In both cases Dutch government and Dutch public opinion made it clear that they will not tolerate a small minority of EU's citizens (the Greek voters) to be the ones to decide on behalf of Europe as a whole. Paradoxically, in the case of the April 6 referendum, they do not seem to have a problem with that.
A total crisis of the EU decision makingThe major impact of a possible success of the Dutch referendum to change their government’s position towards the Association Agreement with Ukraine will be a wave of different referenda all over Europe.
Paradoxically, this wave will confuse citizens but empower governments to block policies they do not like without being responsible for the negative effect of their decisions. The end result will be total crisis of the European Union policy making. It is well known that banks and mosquitos are killed best with newspapers.
In the months after the April 6 referendum in The Netherlands, we might gradually come to realize that the best way to kill the European Union is the seemingly democratic spread of meaningless referenda.
Ivan Krastev is a political scientist, the Chairman of the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Sofia, Permanent Fellow at the Institute of Human Sciences in Vienna (IWM).