Referendums and Forbidden Planets


Since 1972 popular votes have set the stage and promoted European integration. Now they are undermining and destabilizing it.


The British referendum sent shock waves across Europe. Contrary to expectations, the vote to leave defeated the vote to remain (52% to 48%). Turnout was high, and the outcome was uniformly distributed. The only major exceptions were the votes in favour of remaining in the EU cast in London, Northern Ireland, and Scotland. Without those areas of support, the vote to leave would have been even more decisive. The explanations are mostly negative. The English voted overwhelmingly against outside interference, elites, experts, and immigration. They also voted against fear mongering. What they voted for was a mixture of self-determination and a change of direction, but how they will use their autonomy remains to be seen. At the moment, the British ruling elite is too engaged in soul-searching and leadership contests to offer much in the way of vision.

This is hardly a unique situation. In fact, it has become a common outcome when national politicians combine direct democracy with European integration. The reason for this is two-fold. First, European integration is a complicated matter of negotiations and trade-offs. As a result, the countries that participate need rules, information, coordination, and adjudication to facilitate their interaction with one another. They also need a shared understanding of what is possible and what is not. In this respect, the politics of the EU is very different from the politics within a given member state. National leaders are finding it difficult to participate in a collective continental endeavour while explaining their roles to domestic audiences.

The second reason for the frequent occurrence of this situation is the motivation for calling referendums. Politicians ask their electorates to engage in direct democracy as an expression of confidence, not for specific guidance. Whatever the phrasing of the yes-no question, the aim is to ask whether the government should stay the course or do something different. The meaning of “staying the course” is as complex as the EU itself, and more often than not, “something different” is even less clear. When the government succeeds, the outcome is self-evident. The French government asked for popular assent to the first major enlargement of the European Community in 1972, but because the people voted with the government, that referendum has been largely forgotten. The same is true of the many referendums that gave assent to various national accessions  or European treaty revisions. The governments that called these referendums – sometimes by choice, sometimes as a result of constitutional or other legal requirements – got their confirmation and so continued to do what they had been doing.

The exceptions are cases in which government policy was viewed as controversial. The 1975 British referendum on membership and the 2015 Greek referendum on bailout conditionality are two examples. In both cases, the governments sought expressions of popular support in order to silence opposition both inside and outside the governing coalition. In both cases, they succeeded in getting the vote they requested. The result was not an easier relationship between the national government and Europe, but it did reinforce the legitimacy of the sitting government. The 1992 French referendum on the Maastricht Treaty illustrates a different dynamic. The French government called the referendum on the assumption that an easy victory would demonstrate support for its policies elsewhere, but the closeness of the contest showed that affection for Europe is not an easy source of legitimacy for an unpopular government.

The decisive issue is the motivation of the electorate, not of the elites. It is no surprise that governments want support for their policies. What is more interesting is why the people vote as they do when given a binary yes-or-no choice on such complicated political arrangements. Sometimes they deliver a cautious and considered collective judgement that falls in line with the ambitions of ruling politicians. That is certainly not outside the scope of possibility. Sometimes, however, the people respond to a referendum question in unpredictable ways. In such cases, the people are no less cautious and considered in their judgement, and yet the outcomes are very different from what the government had hoped to achieve.

The first Norwegian referendum on participation in the European Community in 1972 caused a political earthquake in that country, probably the closest parallel to what is happening in Britain today. By contrast, the Danish referendum 20 years later on the Maastricht Treaty and the Irish referendums on the Nice (2001) and Lisbon (2008) treaties were less dramatic. The governments failed to get what they wanted in terms of popular support for a specific policy outcome, but they quickly developed close alternatives which allowed them to call for a second referendum.

The French and Dutch referendums on the European Constitutional Treaty (2005) were harder to repeat, but no more difficult to ignore. In those cases, the government could not find a way to return to the electorate and so had to create a solution that would allow them to avoid popular confirmation. The Lisbon Treaty is essentially the European Constitutional Treaty rejected by the French and the Dutch but without the constitutional symbolism. It is easy to see this as a form of cynical misdirection. The government takes advantage of the lack of a clear alternative to repackage its preferences without really changing their content.

The Lisbon Treaty is not a unique case. The Danish people voted in a referendum held in 2000 not to join the euro, and yet the Danish central bank follows a monetary policy under which the country participates in the single currency in all but name. The Dutch government faces a similar situation this year with a popular referendum on the trade relationship between the EU and Ukraine. The group that called for this referendum sought to embarrass the government rather than influence its general direction. The government’s response was to attempt to discourage turnout so that the vote would fall below the 30% threshold for recognition. When that strategy failed, it sought to minimize the implications. Whether the Dutch government will succeed in simply ignoring the referendum remains to be seen.

The best parallel for these surprising situations comes from the science fiction film Forbidden Planet. The main characters in the film face an ever more frightening array of monsters as they try to understand what is happening to the world around them. Moreover, the situation gets continually worse from one encounter to the next: the more frightened the characters become, the more terrible the monsters they face. In the end, they discover that this dynamic is an essential part of the process. The planet contains a machine that turns thoughts into reality. The more they interact with this machine, the more it reinforces their darkest emotions. Referendums work in a similar way, particularly in the context of Europe. European integration is not only complex but also unfamiliar. As a result, it provides ample cause for popular concern. Not only do referendums focus popular attention on what is frightening about European integration, they also transform those fears into reality. The lack of well-defined or meaningful alternatives suddenly becomes clear. The Norwegians did not want to join the European Community, so they now have all of the obligations and few of the privileges of membership; the same is true for Denmark and the euro. The French and the Dutch sought to avoid a soulless, technocratic Europe. In doing so, they sacrificed both the symbolism and vision of a European Constitution without altering the institutional environment. Now the British have voted to exercise their independence while reducing both effective autonomy and influence.

With the benefit of hindsight, the outcome of the British referendum is neither surprising nor counter-intuitive. Fear is a dangerous emotion to introduce into referendum politics, and complex processes like European integration do not lend themselves easily to a yes-or-no popular vote. If there is culpability for the outcome, the whole of the British political class is to blame. But they can take solace from being in good company. Many other European leaders have made similar mistakes.