Tuesday 22 January 2008

Lisbon referendum dilemma

The constitutional setting and the political forces vary between the different EU member states, but at the level of principles, governments, legislators and citizens have cause for thought. Even if one’s own country would be on a clear path to parliamentary ratification of the Lisbon treaty, what happens in the other countries is a common concern.

Just as a majority of all car drivers think that they are better than the majority, it is nearly self-evident that citizens are ready to relieve their elected representatives of the burden to decide, if anyone arranges an opinion poll to find out ‘what the people think’. Thus, there is always some mileage to be got out of demanding a referendum for a politician out of government, especially if he is unlikely to be voted into office in the near future.

The Treaty of Lisbon is no different in this respect from purely domestic issues, but it highlights the discrepancy between a domestic debate and consequences for the rest of the European Union.

The conflicting pressures are most acutely felt in countries where the political leaders promised a referendum on the Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe.

The similarities between the Constitutional Treaty and the watered down Lisbon Treaty are obvious, but they have been in the public domain since the June IGC 2007 mandate. No surprise there.

Referendum is a stickier matter, in my opinion. It was not prudent for governments to get carried away by promising referendums in the first place. Despite its name, the ‘Constitution’ was, despite its pompous name, first and foremost an exercise in improved internal decision making in an enlarged Union. As a by-product, the different layers of previous treaty reform would have been tidied up and presented in an overly long, but fairly readable form.

But after promising, the weaknesses of the EU's treaty basis, which should have been evident, have been more widely understood: Unanimity between governments and then separate majorities (often qualified) in national parliaments (perhaps different chambers) is hard enough in a Union with 27 members, given the vagaries of politics. If national referendums were the norm, separate majorities in all 27 of them would be an additional hurdle, almost guaranteed to wreck any attempt.

Thus, there is an ethical and a practical dilemma. What should a national leader do, given the outcome for the EU as a whole:

Honour stupid promises and accept permanent deadlock?

Ram through an 'elitist' Constitutional Treaty minus?

Found a new Union (perhaps for a smaller number of members) based on the EU citizens, with a real democratic Constitution?

Ralf Grahn

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