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Term Paper, 2006
16 Pages, Grade: 8/A
Direct Democracy and Referenda
The European Union and Direct Democracy
Second-order versus Issue-voting
Obstacle: Missing Common Identity?
Focus on Performance
The European Union has come under tremendous pressure in recent years. Political deadlocks and nearly failed treaty ratifications, finally culminating in an unprecedented crisis due to the no-votes on the Draft Constitutional Treaty in France and the Netherlands, have made many seriously question the entire project of European integration. However, this has not been brought about by the latest failed referenda only. In fact, discussions about the feasibility of the process and its very nature have been occurring on and off. Therein, the notion of the “democratic deficit” has increasingly gained awareness. This is mainly about the way policy making in the EU which is all but transparent is conducted. Some critics regard the arguably restricted access of average citizens to the European legislator as decisive for the future of the Union at large. Indeed, the EU generally suffers from a lack of support by Europeans which is regularly revealed during EU-wide elections to the European Parliament. Low and always lower turnouts made many put the Union’s significance into doubt since these elections are not alone characterised by low participation rates but even more so by a so-called second-order feature. That means European elections are supposed to be more or less national midterm elections wherein citizens show their respective level of satisfaction with domestic incumbents. Thus, European issues or the Parliament are of little to no importance to the voter. In order to increase public support EU institutions persistently try to close the gap between European citizens and Europe, say “Brussels”. But all campaigns explaining the Union at large, mentioning benefits, and praising achievements made so far could not trigger a leap in public affirmation. Indeed, respective rates have been falling for years.
For it is the above-mentioned democratic deficit that is said to be one of the major obstacles in bringing Europe closer to its citizens, a transition towards some form of direct democracy may be a solution. In the following, a serious attempt will, therefore, be made to explore the realm of referenda on EU-level. The question that is hoped to be answered is whether the EU-wide institutionalization of referenda could possibly encourage greater citizen participation.
In so doing, a brief introduction will outline the very issue of referenda and recent findings with respect to the effect on citizens. Thereby, the scientific fundament will by laid in order to proceed with analysing the matter of discussion in EU context. Moreover, the paper will shortly sum up previous developments as for example by having a closer look at experiences made in Ireland during the troublesome Nice Treaty ratifications. Afterwards, the current state of European integration will be set into focus. Reasons for the generally low public support as well as the issue of a European demos will eventually help concluding clarifying whether more direct democratic instruments, in one form or another, could foster citizen participation.
In the following, attention will be paid to direct democracy and referenda in particular. The former stands for the “purest” democratic system wherein citizens are theoretically likely to exert the most influence on policy-makers compared to any other form of socio-political organisation. Thereby, referenda bear a central role since it is them to be the key to influence for citizens. They are convened for a wide range of reasons. Inter alia, citizens may feel dissatisfaction with certain policy directions and initiate a referendum on the issue of concern. On the other hand, political elites often use that means, too. First of all, governments seek to consolidate power by means of a supportive vote by the people. This, however, may easily result in turmoil for citizens could equally well take their chance to punish incumbents for whatever reason; something that has been experienced in France in particular. According to Binzer Hobolt (p.157), referenda are also used in order to overcome internal party divisions or simply for the ratification of a treaty which in case of an overwhelming parliamentary opposition had not been passed otherwise. The latter was the case in Denmark in 1986 w]hen the Single European Act was about to be rejected. Last but not least, some referenda are regarded as “‘de-facto’ obligatory” even though they are not constitutionally required. Another reason may be what Leander termed “the strategy of taking the heat out of politics” (Leander, 2006, p.2) by decoupling sensitive EU issues from domestic politics.
This leads to the distinction between binding and non-binding referenda. In the latter, the possible disregarding of outcomes on part pf the legislator may cross one’s mind. However, this shall not be the matter of concern now but citizens’ behaviour. That is, whereas referenda usually entail a turnout that is about 15 percent below the respective rates for general elections (Butler and Ramney in LeDuc), the same goes with same goes with binding and non-binding referenda. As indicated earlier, though, this does not mean that the latter kind is of somewhat less significance for citizens may be more inclined to use it as a welcome opportunity to put pressure on the government.
Concerning effects on citizens, referenda do not solely show lower turnouts in general. In fact, some claim the institutionalization of direct democratic features helps reducing the democratic deficit common to representative democracies. In a study of the impact of referenda and in so doing campaigns on Canadian voters, Mendelsohn and Cutler raised various questions some of which may be worthwhile having a closer look at. Of particular importance to answering the matter of discussion – if public support for the EU could be increased by means of direct democracy, hence referenda – are questions with respect to political knowledge and the politicization of citizens. They also address one of the contra arguments to referenda, namely the security of minority rights. Indeed, a polarization of policies cannot be ruled out even though Mendelsohn and Cutler come to a very different conclusion so that policies seem to be “median-reverting”. This topic, however, can be set aside as this, from the author’s point of view, would not add up to the discussion on the European Union. The more or less existing political intolerance towards minorities in referenda has little to do with the overall participation and support for the EU in particular.
Increasing the political knowledge among citizens, also termed “educational effect” (Leander, 2006, p.5), is but one argument for proponents of direct democracy. But would not it be possible that exactly the ones in need of information about politics do not show significant extensions of knowledge? After all, it is especially already politically interested who are in favour of direct democracy (Donovan and Karp, 2006). Hence, direct democracy would eventually fail to educate the broad mass.
In their study on Canadian voters, Mendelsohn and Cutler do observe a learning process among citizens. This is rather limited, though, as shown in the results. So the so-called political elite did not show any change in knowledge during the campaign. The “next-best informed”, the (upper) middle class, however, is evidence of significant gains in political competence. With regard to the lower rest of society, the picture does not look as positive. That is, only slight improvements were identified by Mendelsohn and Cutler acknowledging a political learning process that somewhat reduced the information gap. “But it is clear that the campaign did not transform an otherwise poorly-informed citizenry into a community of political junkies” (p. 555).
Apart from political knowledge, the sole politicization of citizens has been in the centre of attraction in the discussion about the benefits of direct democracy. Again, Mendelsohn and Cutler closely analysed Canadian voters in order to prove whether referenda indeed increased citizens’ interest in politics, and so stimulate popular participation. If so, this could already give weight to the idea of institutionalizing referenda on EU-level. They did not find, however, indications for arguing so. Citizens did pay more attention to media as the referendum campaign unfolded. As shown above, incremental increases in knowledge were induced. But it is questionable whether this higher awareness was due to a real interest, or just some sort of peer pressure and a way not to miss out, respectively. Furthermore, they insist an eventual high turnout at the ballot box as such does not tell much. If the referendum was held on an issue of high salience participation could possibly reach the level pf general elections without actual politicization taking place.
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