The following is the answer I provided at Debating Europe’s latest discussion on the question of EU membership referenda. As a convinced supporter of direct/participative democracy, I couldn’t but approve of their need. But they are not only required at the national level, for countries such as Britain to decide on their membership, but also and as equally strongly on the level of the EU, where they can serve as the only means that can strengthen the people’s identification with the European project. Especially in the times when the eurone crisis puts the whole integration project under yet unprecedented stress.
For more, I invite you to read both the Debating Europe’s introductory post and my answer below, which is a response to this video, where British Conservative MP Bill Cash and former Irish Taoiseach (prime minister) John Bruton debate out the same issue.
My answer (‘Do we need Referenda on EU Membership?’):
As a convinced supporter of federal Europe and an equally strong critic of the EU in its present form, I have no doubts that in the long term, the integration project can work only if it is built on popular, democratic grounds.
Unfortunately, the EU has been a technocratic project from the start. Based on the neo-functionalist spillover theory that a political integration will somehow naturally follow the economic one, European people and their wishes were put on a second line. Instead of serving as a cure to numerous political problems suffered by European nation-states, such as alienation of the political elite from citizens, artificial technocraticisation or ‘expertisation’ of decision-making, or sectoral interests of corporations and financiers having privileged access to parliamentary representatives, the EU seemingly only deepened these ills and put them into a far greater, transnational distance. Instead of tackling issues that receive added benefit on a continental scale, EU institutions produce endless minute regulations of internal market of the kind of quality standards for cucumbers (they are allowed a bend of 10mm for every 10cm of length!), or now legendary proper measurements of the European banana. This makes of the principle of subsidiarity, officially enshrined in the EU treaties since 1992, an empty shell that can be potentially used to justify any intervention under the argument that the Union is better placed to intervene in those affairs than a member state or local authority.
Lacking a clear reference to the European civilisational identity, which, notwithstanding eurosceptic critics, is more deeply rooted in the European continent than relatively new national identities, the long-term tenacity of people’s belief in European integration against these saddening facts of its actual realisation is rather a proof of the symbolic strength of our civilisation’s identity than a sign of its rejection. People of Ancient Athens, Aristotle, or modern civic republicans such as Hannah Arendt well knew that the best way to ensure citizens’ identification with their polity is allowing them to actively participate in its political affairs. Advocates of representative democracy are always very quick to come up with claims that people are not knowledgeable enough to rule for themselves and that they need experts who will ‘kindly’ take that burden off their shoulders. As if political rule was not as much or even primarily a question of telos (purpose or aim) as that of expertise! The very idea of life in a democratic polity is that political questions are not a matter of experts to decide (contrary to their implementation). No number of experts will be able to make a purely technical decision on issues such as, for instance, the creation of a common federal political entity (or exiting from it, for that matter), engagement in foreign military interventions, or deciding to bail-out the banking system by privatisations and slashing the public expenditures. It requires a stupendous amount of arrogance to claim that providing answers to these questions is a matter of following some correct, rational and technical procedure rather than and first of all a question of values.
Our values are common and accessible to the whole society as they come from the plentiful soil of literature, religion, myths, culture or tradition. It follows that if political decisions are always made through values, based on who we are, it is the society as a whole that is best placed to discern where these values politically lead it to. As any social entity, parliamentary assemblies are prone to think first of their own sectarian interests rather than those of society. If people give that power away to their representatives, instead of delegating it on the condition that these representatives will continue to respect their political will even after the election, there is no longer any democracy and instead a term-limited reign of government or parliament. In this way, referanda are a powerful instrument of participative democracy that are well placed to ensure that MPs and MEPs remain representative of citizens’ interests.
Yes then – referenda are not only the right answer for individual nations to decide on their EU membership, but also the only right and possible answer for making key political decisions in the EU as a whole.