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“The EU always re-runs referenda until it gets the right answer”
13 Jan, 2018

Leavers’ claim is wrong: it is member states who run referenda

London4Europe Committee member and former Home Office senior civil servant Michael Romberg looks at Leavers’ claim that the EU is anti-democratic because it always runs a second referendum to get the answer it wants.

Some Leavers’ sneer at the campaign for a referendum on the terms by denouncing it as a typical EU tactic – keep asking the question until you get the answer that you want.

There is of course something odd in Leavers’ criticising the holding of referenda. In their book, democratic decisions are made only once and never to be reviewed. Unless it was a decision with which they disagreed, like 1975 or the narrow defeat they expected in 2016.

The first thing to understand is that the EU does not hold or require referenda. Some member states choose to hold referenda under their own constitutions. But these are not EU referenda. Nor do they bind the EU. The referenda bind the member states which held referenda.

Let’s start by looking at the facts. Wikipedia lists 57 valid EU-related referenda. Of these, 16 were lost. Of these, three had a further referendum soon after, and 13 did not.

Lost with no further referendum soon after

1972 – Norway - accession to EU

1982 – Greenland – EU membership

1992 – Switzerland – EEA accession

1995 – Norway - accession to EU

1997 – Switzerland – EU accession

2000 – Denmark – EURO

2001 – Switzerland – EU accession

2003 – Sweden – EURO

2005 – France – Treaty establishing a constitution for Europe *

2005 – Netherlands – Treaty establishing a constitution for Europe *

2015 – Greece - bailout referendum

2015 – Denmark – whether to opt in to Justice co-operation

2016 – Netherlands – EU/ Ukraine co-operation agreement

Lost with a further referendum soon after

1992 – Denmark – Maastricht Treaty – new referendum 1993

2001 – Ireland – Treaty of Nice – new referendum 2002

2008 – Ireland – Lisbon Treaty - new referendum 2009

Lost - not clear what happens next

2016 - UK

* Constitution Treaty/ Lisbon Treaty

When the Constitution Treaty was lost, EU member states created the Lisbon Treaty instead. It covered similar ground but was also different in some of its substantive provisions. The legal basis was quite different. Most countries, including France and the Netherlands, did not put Lisbon to a popular vote.

What happened when there was a further vote

On Maastricht, Denmark negotiated and received four opt-outs from portions of the treaty.

On Nice, Ireland obtained a special document stressing assurances.

On Lisbon, Ireland received a number of guarantees.

The nature of democracy

So, most EU-related referenda are won by the pro-EU side. With most of those that are lost the defeat ends the story. In a minority of cases, the EU and member states respond to a lost referendum by changing the proposal. That second different proposal may then be carried. People are of course free to choose how they vote.

We should see that as good. It shows that the EU and member states listen and take into account the concerns expressed.

Indeed, in some cases, especially Ireland, it was an explicit aim of the No campaign to obtain a better deal.

It is also normal behaviour in negotiations. You are offered a salary of £100. You ask for £120. You would be surprised if your prospective employer simply withdrew the job offer and did not speak with you again.

There is something bizarre about Leavers’ insistence that it is undemocratic or totalitarian to respond to concerns by improving a proposal and giving the public a chance to express its view on the new proposal.

Indeed, not everyone seems to be able to grasp the difference between asking voters a different question and asking voters to change their mind on the first question.

In the UK’s case, a referendum on the terms of Brexit would ask a quite different question from June 2016. People would have a choice between two worked-up plans. They would be free to choose, and – unlike in June – they would be able to make an informed choice. It is those who wish to deny the public an informed choice who are undemocratic.