Government of the people, by the people, for the people
The words of Abraham Lincoln to honour the soldiers that sacrificed their lives in order “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth” were spoken at Gettysburg, but these words apply as well to the countless soldiers that died for the cause of democracy in the following 150 years.
Democracy has become such a sacrosanct concept that even the harshest dictatorships, such as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, call themselves a democracy. But what is democracy?
Was it democracy to give the British people the opportunity to vote about membership of the European Union after providing them with contradictory information about the consequences of leaving? Was it democracy to ask the opinion of the Dutch people about an Association Agreement with Ukraine for improper reasons? (The committee that took the initiative admitted that it did not care at all about Ukraine but wanted to use the referendum to destroy the European Union or drive the Netherlands out of the EU.)
Is it democracy when Dutch ministers shy away from telling the people that the Netherlands is giving up (for very good reasons) part of its sovereignty to the European Union because that would incite people to vote for anti-European parties? (See my column Who dares to be honest?)
Obviously, if politicians believe that voters cannot be trusted with the truth, democracy is seriously at risk. For a democracy to function it is essential that a government respects the people and takes them seriously, not only those that have voted for that government, but all people. Furthermore, in order to exercise their democratic rights properly, people should be informed as fully as possible.
Democracy is a form of conflict management within states, just as diplomacy is a form of conflict management between states. Both therefore usually lead to a compromise between different views and different perceived interests. That is certainly the case when a decision requires both agreement between and within states.
Democracy is a living system of government that can only prosper by being reinvented again and again. It can be strengthened by a referendum if a question can be answered by a simple yes or no. However, democracy is undermined when people are made to believe that a complicated question that involves the interests of different countries can be satisfactorily answered by a referendum in one of these countries. Neither the future of the relation between the EU and Ukraine, nor the future relation between the United Kingdom and the EU can be based on a simplistic yes or no.