Forget the Year of the Monkey, 2016 will be remembered as the year of the referendum. From Colombia to the United Kingdom, the voice of the people is once again heard. Whether this is actually a good thing remains to be seen. International Perspective gathered four experts to shed their light on the matter. (Featured Image © Adaptor- Plug, modified)
No to refugee resettlement, no to an association agreement with Ukraine, no to austerity politics and finally no to the European Union (EU) in general. Over the past several months, people across the EU expressed their distrust with EU institutions in a series of referendums. Respectively held in Hungary, the Netherlands, Greece and the United Kingdom, the referendums share one trait: national voters don’t care much for EU legislation. Is the surge in referendums a return to the essence of democracy, or are savvy politicians using them to advance their goals?
Democracy in Crisis
The panel quickly agreed on one point: our modern democracy is in a crisis. Voter turnout is on the decline and citizens’ trust in political institutions is following suit. Cato Léonard, cofounder of the G1000, wants people to get involved in the political process once again. “In a referendum you ask people what they think before they actually get a chance to think”, argued Léonard. Politicians need to stimulate people to get informed and discuss amongst themselves before making a decision. Referendums rarely achieve this. Anyone recall British voters looking up ‘what the EU is’ only after voting to leave it?
Fabian Willermain, research fellow at the Egmont Institute, was less optimistic. Even when encouraged to think many people will still be unwilling to spend time and effort to make an informed decision. According to Willermain, voters mainly consider their self-interest and are guided by short-term considerations. As such, the will of the people is not a stable foundation for politics. “You cannot build a united Europe by using referendums”, concurred Bart Brinckman, senior journalist for De Standaard. Both Brinckman and Willermain felt that politics are best left in the hands of trained and experienced politicians.
Sending a Message
The problem with these trained politicians is that they themselves often lack (long-term) vision. Preoccupied with polls and election results, they might not always have the best interest of their citizens in mind. Add to that that many politicians (ab)use referendums as a political tool and we might find that our leaders are not as trustworthy as we might think. Both the Greek and Hungarian referendum had a limited effect on politics but succeeded in their goal of being a giant middle finger to the European Commission. When it comes to referendums, it’s not about workable politics; it’s about sending a message.
The sad reality is, however, that politicians tie their hands by organizing referendums. Yes, giving power back to the people is an admirable position, but what happens when the referendum does not turn out the way you intended it to (Colombia) or is simply not politically workable (Greece)? David Cameron organized two referendums, believing he would win both with flying colours. The second one cost him his job. In effect, referendums answer one simple question but raise many more, asserted Joost van den Akker, who is finishing his PhD on referendums.
The same can be said about our event: it raised more questions than it answered. Luckily that is a positive thing, at least according to our acting moderator professor Dirk De Bièvre (University of Antwerp). To form an educated opinion is to ask questions and maintain a nuanced position. And let that just be where referendums fail. There is no middle ground; only yes or no, black or white, yay or nay.
International Perspective was glad to welcome so many of you at this thought-provoking event, as well as at the reception afterwards. Keeping in with the tradition of forming an educated opinion, we encourage you to ask yourself whether or not our modern democratic system stands to gain with the rise of referendums. A simple yes or no will suffice.