The problem with, and the virtue of, referendums is that, in the absence of armed guards at the ballot box, you can never be sure of the result. The curious politics of the European Union are such that referendums are of particular importance. The big news at present relates to the twin referendums just held in Cyprus, on the UN plan for reunification, and the commitment by Tony Blair to hold a referendum on the EU ‘constitution’.
The Cyprus outcome was the opposite of the result predicted (and feared) by many until quite recently. The Turkish Cypriots voted for reunification, rejecting the arguments of separatist leader Rauf Dentktash (until recently, an apparent permanent fixture). Meanwhile the voters in the internationally-recognised Greek Cypriot republic voted against, apparently on the basis that they could get a better deal after they are securely inside the EU.
Although disappointing, the result is not nearly as bad as the opposite possibility – continued support for separatism among the Turkish Cypriots, which would have represented a significant challenge to the whole international order and made the admission of Turkey to the EU most unlikely. The manoeuvrings of the Greek Cypriot politicians who undermined support for the deal are simply a standard example of shortsighted hardball politics. They want reunification but have made the judgement that they can extract a better deal once they are in the UN and the Turkish Cypriots are on the outside.
The question naturally arises as to how to react when a referendum goes the ‘wrong’ way. If the right to make choices in a referendum is taken seriously, the voters should not be punished for exercising their right to choose. On the other hand, choices have consequences. The obvious consequence of the choices made at the weekend is that there’s no reason for governments in the EU or outside it to trouble themselves any further with the sanctions that have been imposed on the Turkish Cypriots until now. It would be absurd to recognise the government they have just voted in favor of abolishing, but for all other purposes, the residents of the Turkish portion of Cyprus should be treated as normal members of the international community. As a necessary side effect, the removal of these disabilities will weaken the bargaining position of the Greek Cypriot government next time reunification is discussed, but that’s not the reason for removing them.
Presumably, the judgement made by the Greek Cypriot leaders is that the possession of a single vote in an EU where every member has a veto will be worth more than the sympathy of the international community, including fellow members of the EU. This leads naturally to the second referendum being discussed on the proposed ‘EU constitution’, which would, among other things reduce the scope of such vetos.
After staving it off as long as possible, Tony Blair has finally agreed to hold a referendum in the UK, and he was right to do so. The central problem with the EU is the lack of democratic accountability arising from a structure with a powerless parliament, under which all decisions are effectively made either by the unelected European Commission or by national governments in the Council of Ministers. The solution is either to keep the EU relatively weak and ineffectual, by maintaining national vetos over most issues, or to make the system more like a bicameral legislature, with some form of majority voting in both the Parliament and the Council. The expansion, by introducing lots of new members (including several that have already shown themselves willing to act irresponsibly) makes the first option less attractive, but not necessarily unworkable. The natural consequence of losing automatic national vetos will be to increase concern with the functioning of the Parliament, and this will ultimately promote democratic accountability.
It’s obvious, though, that democracy can’t be promoted by denying it, and it’s therefore highly desirable that the changes should be subject to referendums in any country where there is a strong body of opposition. The UK obviously fits this description.
There are several possible outcomes to such a process. First, somewhat improbably , all the referendums could pass, in which case there is no problem. Second, the proposal could be rejected in a few countries on the basis of more-or-less extraneous concerns, as happened with Ireland and the Treaty of Nice. In this case, the referendums can just be held again. Third, the proposal could be rejected in several countries, following a debate that was clearly focused on the main issues (the proposal itself and the general issue of European integration). In that case, it would be time to call a halt, and leave existing arrangements in place for a while. If they produced the predicted problems, voters might be willing to reconsider the issues in a few years time. Otherwise, it would be necessary to scale back the ambitions of the European Project to something more like a Free Trade Area and less like a United States of Europe.
The final case, and the one of most interest for Blair, is the possibility that only one country (the UK is the most likely candidate) rejects the referendum, and that this position is not amenable to change through the holding of a second referendum. In the short run, the probable consequence is a “two-speed” system, with the eurozone being the obvious basis for a core group within which further integration could take place.
In the long run, though, a federation (or, more accurately, a confederation) like the EU must include a mechanism for withdrawal and exclusion as well as for new admissions. If one member is permanently at odds with the others on fundamental issues, that member should be invited to leave. It’s therefore somewhat disingenuous of those advocating a “No” vote to claim that it isn’t a vote against British membership of the EU. Most of those advocating a “No” vote are not concerned with the details of the proposal, but would take the same position on almost any proposal to make a union of 25 countries functional. The ultimate consequence must be either British withdrawal or (if voters in other European countries take the same view) a substantial weakening of the EU.
fn1. This isn’t impossible. All but one (I think) of the new entrants held referendums, and all were successful. So if the stakes are high enough, the likelihood of frivolous or petulant “No” votes is greatly reduced.