Tim King: Referendums are not the right way to address the EU’s democratic deficit

07 February 2013, Opening Remarks.


An obsession with referendums used to be just one of the various eccentricities of Switzerland. Nowadays it is common also to the European Union.

The promise made to his electorate last month by David Cameron, the United Kingdom’s prime minister, of a referendum on membership of the EU has put a question-mark over the future shape of the Union. And this is not a new experience: the EU’s Nice treaty and Lisbon treaty were both put in doubt by ‘No’ votes in Ireland. The EU’s constitutional treaty was stopped in its tracks by ‘No’ votes in France and the Netherlands. Twenty years ago, the EU was putting itself back together after Danish voters had rejected the Maastricht treaty in a referendum.

All these defeats have made the European Council very wary of doing anything that might precipitate a referendum somewhere in the EU – hence some of the contortions over economic governance in the last two years.

Critics of the EU charge that it is the creation of an elite and is out of touch with Europe’s voters. They point to the low turn-outs in elections to the European Parliament and complain of a democratic deficit.

There are both supporters and opponents of the EU who believe that the answer to this democratic deficit is more voting. They argue that the EU’s most important decisions should be subject to referendums – to a popular vote.

Martin Callanan is the leader of the British Conservative MEPs in the European Parliament. He supports the decision of his party leader, David Cameron to offer an in-out referendum on the EU in the first half of the next term of the national parliament. Callanan argues that, without referendums, decisions will be made by a small elite. Trust the people, he urges.

Elmar Brok is a veteran German Christian Democrat member of the European Parliament with a long-standing interest in the EU’s constitutional arrangements. He argues that referendums are not democratically superior to decisions taken by democratically elected representatives. He says that referendums are a means for elected representatives to shirk their responsibilities and evade difficult choices.

So who’s right and why? Do join in our debate. Feel free to criticise the motion – it’s the debating equivalent of quibbling with the referendum question.


Elmar Brok
The proposer’s opening remarks

brokThe last decade has seen increasing debate over whether or not the EU is suffering from a democratic deficit. The discussions reached their climax in the ongoing EU debt crisis which led to discontent and the impression that citizens have lost all influence on the policy-making process. As a result, some people argue that the introduction of Europe-wide referendums as a means of direct democracy may be the key to reducing this deficit. But that would mean that a single country can be outvoted also in questions of principle.

I do not agree with the claim that EU‘s democratic accountability could be strengthened by decisions which have been imposed on citizens by politicians. Referendums do not have a higher democratic standing than decisions taken by democratically-elected representatives, especially since most political questions cannot be answered with a simple “yes or no”. And in contrast to the citizen, an elected representative has to go back to voters in the next election.

As democratically-elected representatives of European citizens we have the duty to ensure that every political decision is taken in a clear, transparent and comprehensible manner. This is the main condition for a democratically legitimate political process. The citizen must be fully informed and aware of the issues in order to make his choice by giving his mandate in the next election.

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