Voting in EU referendums - is it worth the shoe leather?
by our secret columnist in Brussels
As we approach another EU referendum in Ireland on the fiscal compact and Britain debates whether to hold an in/out vote, our resident satirist Schadenfreude asks whether such public ballots ever result in any meaningful change and if anything – including a 'no' vote – can stop the European project from rolling on
Does anybody like referendums? Do they mean anything? Germans do not like them because they remind them of the three conducted by the Third Reich, which were rigged. The British do not seem to like them much – although, the Scots are determined to have one. Britain passed an act in 2000 - to regulate political parties, elections and referendums. It passed another in 2011, to require a referendum if there were any proposal to increase the powers of the institutions of the European Union. The United Kingdom coalition government accompanied this rule by another in which it declared that, in the life of the current parliament, it would not agree in Brussels to any such proposal. This turned the referendum act into a 'no' referendum act.
In 1975, the then ruling Labour Party in Britain was split over the referendum in which the government of Harold Wilson asked the voters if they wanted to remain in the European Economic Community; as changed by the negotiations in which he had improved the terms of British membership. Few knew what the changes were. If they had examined them objectively, they would have concluded that they did not change that much. In any case, the debate was not about the renegotiations but about British membership, tout court. The voters decided that Britain should stay in.
Several member states of the EU are obliged by national law to hold referendums in order to obtain public approval for the ratification of treaties, which will admit new members to the union as well as for new treaties or treaty amendments. It is a bit of a farce. In the old Latin tag - the mountains are in labour and a ridiculous mouse is born. In 1992, the Maastricht Treaty failed at the first hurdle in Denmark. So the referendum was run again and the treaty got through. The Danes apparently realised that they would not have to adopt the euro. They may not have realised that their interest rate would be whatever the European Central Bank in Frankfurt fixed.
It is one of the examples of 'democracy by fax'. Shouldn't it now be 'by e-mail'? In 2001, the Irish voters did not support the Treaty of Nice - which was often said to be a French put-up-job. When they were asked a second time, they narrowly agreed. They apparently overcame their reluctance to accept that in a remote future, the European Commission might not have a seat for an Irish commissioner. In 2005, the treaty establishing a constitution for Europe emerged from the French-led convention - which had composed it. It failed to carry the voters in France and the Netherlands. It was apparently a step too far. This controversially released a grateful Labour government in Britain from its commitment to hold a referendum. The constitution was abandoned.
Some bits of the constitution were salvaged in the Treaty of Lisbon, in 2008. Some thought that the British Labour government's pledge should apply to Lisbon. The government said 'not so – it was a different treaty and it was not a constitution; moreover the British had two major opt-outs'. The Irish public rejected it, with concern over whether abortion might become a human right and whether Ireland might be obliged to join an EU military alliance. Soothing assurances were given, although not textually in the treaty. In a re-run, Ireland voted 'yes' by a small majority.
The next event is the referendum in Ireland on the European fiscal compact to be held on May 31? Will its provision for restrictions put the Irish voter off? And, in Britain, a significant faction of the Conservative Party membership - as well as the established anti-EU movements - is looking for reasons, or at least occasions, to hold a referendum on whether the UK should leave the EU. The polls suggest that it would be a close run thing, but will the vote make any difference to a European project determined to keep rolling on?
In or out? Britain's EU dilemma
Our secret columnist considers how the British government might set out the arguments for and against the country's withdrawal from the EU if it held the in/out referendum that many are calling for