Referenda: strengthening of democracy or new sickness?

28 September 2016

Referenda: strengthening of democracy or new sickness?

In the wake of Brexit, voices are being raised in ever more European countries in favour of referenda. In the Netherlands too, local authorities are opting in increasing numbers for this form of direct democracy. Does this offer new opportunities, or is it a threatening development?

Great Britain has chosen “isolationism, nationalism and backwardness”. Accordingly, referenda represent “a form of popular swindling which incites by means of lies, deceit and manipulation”, stirred up by “fake journalism, sham politics and pseudo-intellectuals.” A random selection from the strong words employed by sociologist and anthropologist Dr Ton Zwaan in an opinion piece in the national daily De Volkskrant. It’s clear what he thinks of the result of the Brexit referendum. But it’s striking the distinction he draws between opinion-makers who differ from him and one of  whom he clearly approves: himself. 

It is certainly something when the population gives its opinion via a referendum. Dr Zwaan expresses a view which is undoubtedly shared by large parts of the political-economic elite: get rid of the influence of the stupid masses. Yet if you look at the development of the EU, what you see is that the fact that any control that the European public has is being removed is contributing to the growing popularity of referenda. The idea that once in four or five years you get to vote for your national parliament is no longer enough is leading to an overwhelming slamming on of the brakes when referenda are held. Is that ‘backward’?  

Perhaps it would help if we were to look at the motives of the British people when the majority voted for Brexit. In Scotland, they voted clearly for Remain, as they did in Northern Ireland. The same goes for London. Experts argue that people in Northern Ireland see the EU as an ally in the peace process. For the Scots, economic dependence on the EU was an important argument. But in the traditionally Labour-dominated areas of England and Wales, the balance swung the other way, as it was here that Brussels’ influence on national policy weighed most heavily. However varied the arguments and whatever you make of them, they do reveal something interesting. The majority of the British electorate stated in the referendum that their concerns were different to those of London’s financial district, the City. The predicted unrest on the financial markets, the fall in value of the pound sterling and the exodus from the City weighed less heavily on most people that their feeling and their conviction that political decision-makers were not taking their concerns seriously. 


Everything points to the fact that the British and European political establishment is further removed from the people than ever. In the panic that broke out after the referendum this emerged once again, when assertions were heard that the 52% by which the British had voted for Brexit was ‘actually’ too small a majority. On top of that was the suggestion that this majority consisted for the most part of a bunch of opportunistic idiots to whom the future of Europe could not be left.

Alexander Pechtold of the  centrist party D66 put this into words when he told Parliament that “the ‘LEAVE’ camp offers a rare insight into the political emptiness of populism.” And that from the leader of a ‘pro-European’ party for which the referendum was until very recently the ‘jewel in the crown’. 

Is it to be seen as strange that referenda are increasingly fashionable? Should it surprise us that throughout Europe the calls for referenda grow louder by the day? Is the question not so much how the EU will continue to take centre stage even without Great Britain, but how the establishment’s message is being repeatedly rejected? Because that is just what happened during the Dutch referenda on the European Constitution and the Association Agreement with Ukraine. The people’s foot slamming on the brakes was unmissable. Could that perhaps have something to do with the choices made in these same Europhile circles, in particular the fact that as a rule these choices have turned out to be good for multinationals and not for the man and woman in the street? 

Nexit referendum?

“If there’s one level where people’s opinions aren’t respected, then it’s certainly the European Union,” says SP general secretary Hans van Heijningen, who was closely involved in the aforementioned referenda on the European Constitution and the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement. “So it’s fitting that it’s taking the blame.” 

“Now that the Brexit camp has won, we need a debate in every member state on the necessary rebuilding of the European house,” Harry van Bommel, SP spokesman on EU affairs, told Parliament recently.  “The Commission, the self-styled European government, can as far as we’re concerned clear out because it isn’t them but the EU member state government leaders who should be laying out the course. In addition, it’s unacceptable to us that the EU is interfering with our national budget and telling us how high the deficit or the national debt can be. We believe also that the people must be able to express their views via referendum on any transfer of powers to Brussels.”  Van Heijningen added that “holding a Nexit referendum now would not make sense. A majority of the population isn’t against European cooperation, but that doesn’t mean that time and again the bill can be presented without our getting any benefit. If the European Union charges ahead and remains deaf to the people’s dissatisfactions, our party can at any time take the initiative for a referendum to be held on our proposals for radical changes.” In the Netherlands, a (non-binding, advisory) referendum must be held if 300,000 valid signatures (out of an electorate of just under 13 million) can be collected within six weeks of an initial request to the electoral council signed by just 10,000 Dutch citizens. 

Apart from the need to change the way that the EU is run, Van Heijningen is also concerned about worrying developments within Europe. Member states such as Greece, Spain, Portugal, Italy and even France find themselves in financial crisis. Brussels’ ‘solutions’ in the form of cuts in state spending  and public services, , the flexibilisation  of the labour market (for which read ‘destruction of job security’), are encountering mass resistance as a result of which anti-EU sentiments can only be strengthened. Insecurity is the trump card, on both the political and financial level. The coercive measure which is a referendum is growing ever closer, not only in the Netherlands but also in other member states. 

On the local level too referenda are winning ground, and there are parallels with the major European themes. Take the referendum in Rotterdam which will take place in November. The council in the port intends to demolish 20,000 – 20,000! – affordable dwellings as part of its ‘Woonvisie’ – roughly translated, ‘vision for living’. Anyone who knows how tight things are for people on low- and middle incomes on the housing market of  2016, will quickly see how abject, Utopian and irresponsible is this plan. That’s why some 13,000 Rotterdammers have added their signatures to the call for a referendum. Here too we see the referendum in its role as possible block on policies which appear to come from outer space and which will prove disastrous for the ordinary citizen. 

A doll called Harrie

However, the opposite can also be the case. Everyone and anyone is free to take the initiative for a referendum, for example, on the abolition of policies to tackle poverty or the privatisation of the domestic water supply. According to Hans van Heijningen, “it would then be up to the SP to conduct an effective campaign and mobilise people to persuade voters of what is the sensible choice.” If that doesn’t work, the bottom line is that democracy has been allowed to function. Whether  in that case things will always turn out well, ask a Californian. There, referenda seem to take place every two minutes, and on the most diverse topics such as lowering of taxes, environmental measures and even budgetary questions, with critics arguing that all of this hoo-ha blocks the political process. It’s also hardly rare for there to be a commotion around the precise wording of the referendum question and some are quick to reach for the word ‘manipulation’. According to experts, moreover, referenda cost millions to organise and it goes without saying that people want to know who in any case wanted a referendum and with what aim. 

For examples of this you don’t need to go to the US. In Utrecht some four years ago a group of entrepreneurs  appeared who tried to enforce Sunday trading via a citizen’s initiative (i.e. a petition for a referendum). This group, which on closer inspection turned out to consist of major national retail chains as well as an association representing the traders of the city centre shopping mall ‘Hoog Catharijne’ , began an intense campaign with a rather simple doll, known as Harrie, in the leading role. Harrie – a female – lived in Utrecht and wanted very much to shop on Sundays, but the shops were closed so she had to go all the way to Amsterdam. The campaign provoked a great deal of derision, however, aa well as a counter-campaign – ‘Utrecht is no Harrie’ – which was supported by large numbers of small shopkeepers and other entrepreneurs. In the end the citizens’ initiative was stillborn, and the referendum thus never happened. It did, however, smooth the way for a decision in favour of Sunday shopping in the local authority. Many inhabitants had had enough of this form of direct democracy. In fact the people behind the attempt at a citizens’ initiative thought along the same lines as the elite does now following the Brexit referendum, but in reverse. Not after, but before the moment of decision, compare the populace to a feeble-minded individual. 

Pension fund

Referenda can be held, and the result may be a rap on the fingers for national governments, sending them back to the drawing board. But what if the result is simply ignored? The referenda in 2005 in France and the Netherlands on the European Constitution led in both countries to a resounding ‘no’, but two years later European leaders blandly signed the Lisbon Treaty, whose contents were just the same. As for what the Dutch government will do about the result of the Ukraine referendum earlier this year – a clear rejection of the EU’s Association Agreement with that country  - this isn’t as yet completely clear. But nothing indicates that Prime Minister Mark Rutte is going to be particularly insistent in Brussels. In fact, not long after the referendum it was announced that a Ukrainian-owned mega-chicken farm was to be established in the Dutch town of Veenendaal. This provoked huge annoyance among poultry farmers, as the enormous plant will not be held to the same regulations as they are obliged to follow. All of this is only possible because of the Association Agreement voted down, you will remember, by the Dutch electorate.

The systematic ignoring of popular opinion only leads to growing pressure on local councils, national governments and the EU authorities. Yet barely a week after the UK referendum a majority in the Dutch Parliament voted, to many people’s astonishment, to hand control of the country’s pension fund to the EU. “The mortgage which the elite is taking out on its plan for a united Europe is growing ever greater,” says Hans van Heijningen. Still more Europe appears to be the elite’s device, but it is one which could meet with the unintended consequence of a good hiding come the elections.

Amongst this elite is much of a media which never tires of sticking unflattering labels on EU member states’ citizens who have shown themselves to be critical of Europe’s direction. The Greeks are lazy and the Hungarians xenophobic. And of course French workers are old-fashioned when they go on strike, because they aren’t happy with the flexible labour laws which Brussels so fervently desires. In sum, ordinary citizens who assess the EU on the basis of what it means in concrete terms for them are backward,  haven’t the remotest idea about Europe’s future, and should therefore shut up. This has little to with the nationalities named above. The fault-lines lie rather along levels of income and education. Everyone who isn’t rich or well-educated is backward and should pipe down. Or must, as was the case in Utrecht, run after the establishment like a simple-minded ‘Harrie’.

No wonder that referenda are becoming ever more popular. 

Text by Rob Janssen. This article first appeared, in the original Dutch, in the SP monthly De Tribune. 

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