The Leave campaign in the Brexit referendum have employed two main arguments in their campaign: The fear of uncontrolled immigration into the UK and the need to take back control from “faceless bureaucrats in Brussels”. Little matter that 60% of foreign born residents of the UK are not from the EU and that the total foreign born population comes in at 13% of the total — the same as US and Germany — and lower than both Norway and Switzerland, which are not in the EU.
But it is to the second meme that I want to turn my attention, one conceded by many on both left and right of the Remain side: the alleged domination by faceless bureaucrats in Brussels. Let us leave aside, for the moment, the oddity that the charges of a lack of democratic accountability are coming from the only major EU member with an entirely unelected upper chamber of parliament.
Is it true that nations joining the EU have to shed a lot of democracy in the process? A lot is made, for instance, of the three occasions on which a referendum on essentially the same Treaty was run twice “until the electorate gave the right answer”… as if this somehow undermined the democratic legitimacy of the EU. However the UK also voted, in a Referendum in 1975, on the question of EU membership. So why is the current referendum any more legitimate?
In fact the EU membership is the only question on which voters have been given a direct say by way of a UK wide referendum: all other questions having been decided by way of the “Sovereign” Westminster Parliament including the unelected House of Lords. It seems to me that membership of the EU has more democratic accountability than any other decisions made by the UK.
But let us examine this issue a little more widely. In total, there have been 46 distinct referenda on matters related to the EU since 1972. Many of these were held in countries such as the UK with little or no tradition of holding referenda – so you could argue that the level of democracy and consultation in EU member states has actually increased with or since accession.
In 34 of these referenda, the side supported by the pro-EU side won the day. That is a pretty high proportion given that many referenda are effectively votes of confidence in the Government of the day, and that governments frequently get turfed out at the next election. There have been 9 defeats for the pro-government or pro-EU side which were then honoured or implemented:
- In 1972 Norway voted against membership and did not join.
- In 1979 Greenland voted against membership and subsequently left
- In 1994 Norway again voted against membership and did not join.
- In 2000 and 2003 Denmark and Sweden voted against joining the Euro
- In 2005 France and Netherlands voted against a proposed new Constitution, which was then never enacted.
- In 2015 Denmark voted against opting in to the Justice and Home affairs provisions of the Maastricht Treaty.
- In 2016 Dutch voters voted against an Association Agreement between the European Union and Ukraine in a low turn-out non-binding referendum. Whether this referendum result will be honoured remains to be seen.
There have also been 3 referenda defeats which resulted in the Government of the day negotiating changes to the Treaty in question and subsequently carrying a second vote by a much higher margin on a much higher turnout:
1. First Defeat and re-run
In Denmark, two referendums were held before the treaty of Maastricht passed. The first was held on 2 June 1992, had a turnout of 82.9% with approval of the treaty of Maastricht denied by a slim margin of 50,7%, with 49.3% in favour of the treaty.
After that defeat of the treaty, Denmark negotiated and received the following four opt-outs from portions of the treaty: Economic and Monetary Union, Union Citizenship, Justice and Home Affairs and Common Defense. A new referendum was held on 18 May 1993. There was a turnout of 85.5% of which the 56.8% voted in favour of the treaty with the opt-outs.
Second Defeat and re-run
In 2001 Irish voters rejected the Treaty of Nice by 53.9%, with 34.8% of the electorate voting. At a second referendum in 2002, statements on Ireland not having to join a common defence policy and affirming the right to decide on enhanced cooperation in the national parliament were stressed in a special document and they accepted the Treaty by 62.9% with 49.5% of the electorate voting.
Third defeat and re-run:
After the first vote by the Republic of Ireland on the Lisbon Treaty, the European Council made a statement that the other member countries would not use the possibility in the Treaty to diminish the number of permanent commissioners in favor of a rotating system with fewer commissioners, and not threaten Ireland’s military neutrality and rules on abortion. With these statements, The Irish voted again on the unchanged Lisbon Treaty on 2 October 2009. The vote was then 67.1% in favour of the treaty.
Note that in each case there was a much higher turnout for the second vote and the vote was carried by a much higher margin than the original defeat.
I think we can draw a number of conclusions form this: There has been more democratic consultation within EU member states since they became part of the EU. 75% of proposed changes have been voted in. In most cases where a proposal was defeated, that result was respected and implemented. In three cases a proposal was defeated and then subsequently passed by a much wider margin on a higher turn-out vote following the negotiation of opt-outs or clarifications. There has also been one slightly weird anomaly: In July 2015 the Greek Government actually won a referendum called to reject the bailout conditions attached to a Troika bail-out in the Greek government-debt crisis by 61%. Shortly afterwards the government accepted a bailout with even harsher conditions than the one rejected.
However in general, I would regard the EU experience of referenda as evidence of democracy in action whereas some “progressives” seem to think the reverse: that the EU is less democratic than it ever was. In one sense that may be true: Now that the EU has expanded to 28 members its institutions must reflect the views of 28 members which necessarily makes it more remote from the views of any one member. But it would be less democratic, not more, if one member where to be increasingly able to determine the path of the EU as a whole. The UK campaigned vociferously for the expansion of the EU membership to include 10 eastern European states, and now it complains that the EU is less responsive to its particular concerns – but that is the logical consequence of the expansion! The EU is not some sort of re-enactment of the British Empire.
There has also been vociferous opposition to all things EU in the media: Martin Fletcher former Times foreign correspondent has this to say:
Appalled as I am at the prospect of my country voting to leave the European Union next week, I am hardly surprised.
For 25 years our press has fed the British public a diet of distorted, mendacious and relentlessly hostile stories about the EU – and the journalist who set the tone was Boris Johnson.
I know this because I was appointed Brussels correspondent of The Times in 1999, a few years after Johnson’s stint there for The Telegraph, and I had to live with the consequences.
Johnson, sacked by The Times in 1988 for fabricating a quote, made his mark in Brussels not through fair and balanced reporting, but through extreme euro-scepticism. He seized every chance to mock or denigrate the EU, filing stories that were undoubtedly colourful but also grotesquely exaggerated or completely untrue.
The Telegraph loved it. So did the Tory Right. Johnson later confessed: “Everything I wrote from Brussels, I found was sort of chucking these rocks over the garden wall and I listened to this amazing crash from the greenhouse next door over in England as everything I wrote from Brussels was having this amazing, explosive effect on the Tory party, and it really gave me this I suppose rather weird sense of power.”
Johnson’s reports also had an amazing, explosive effect on the rest of Fleet Street. They were much more fun than the usual dry and rather complex Brussels fare. News editors on other papers, particularly but not exclusively the tabloids, started pressing their own correspondents to match them. By the time I arrived in Brussels editors only wanted stories about faceless Brussels eurocrats imposing absurd rules on Britain, or scheming Europeans ganging up on us, or British prime ministers fighting plucky rearguard actions against a hostile continent. Much of Fleet Street seemed unable to view the EU through any other prism. It was the only narrative it was interested in.
Stories that did not bash Brussels, stories that acknowledged the EU’s many achievements, stories that recognised that Britain had many natural allies in Europe and often won important arguments, almost invariably ended up on the spike.
Boris Johnson is now campaigning against the cartoon caricature of the EU that he himself created. He is campaigning against a largely fictional EU that bears no relation to reality. That is why he and his fellow Brexiteers could win next week. Johnson may be witty and amusing, just as Donald Rumsfeld was in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, but he is extremely dangerous. What began as a bit of a jape could inflict terrible damage on this country.
So to conclude: Yes there has been widespread disagreement and debate on how the EU should develop, and this debate looks like it will intensify regardless of the outcome of the Brexit referendum. However this is what democracy in action is all about, and given that many EU members have a history of dictatorship, surely that, in itself, is an advance?