Schizophrenic nature of the UK’s referendum

A referendum is the most democratic element in our (relatively) modern-day representative democracies and the only element to bring it close to the direct democracy nature of its ancient past.  So what can we make of UK’s referendum ?

UK and the EU. Same forces, same debate. Image from: Telegraph

Yet having one is not necessarily an indication of a healthy democracy: constituencies matter, quorum matters, whether it is mandatory or consultative, Constitutional safeguards, and other such elements, matter. There are many factors that influence the ‘democratic quality’ of a referendum.

Following the publication of a Draft Deal by the Council of the EU on the UK’s membership, EU and Member State negotiators will meet on Thursday, February 11, to hammer out the details ahead of the EU Summit on February 18.

While most attention is diverted to the contents of the Draft Deal, in-work benefits, refugee scaremongering and more, nobody seems to ask the question of whether or not this referendum is actually legitimate.

The answer would seem fairly obvious: the issue is the UK’s membership, so it’s the British who should decide. However, in this case, the democratic fault lies within the undefined nature of the EU, stuck somewhere in limbo between confederation and federation.

The UK’s EU referendum is democratically faulty on two interconnected sides: on the domestic and the European arena.

Domestically, the UK referendum is not representative

The UK is the sum of four Countries: England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Island. As the experience with the Scottish referendum shows, opinions and feelings of belonging can vary widely.

Each constituent member of the UK is afforded a certain degree of autonomy from London and with their own political forces which are constantly dubbed by the British press as ‘nationalist’.

Furthermore, during the Scottish referendum debate, Mr Cameron gave several speeches arguing that ‘together is better’, for a number of reasons that range from security, economic prosperity to energy efficiency and trade, all opposing arguments to what he uses on the European arena.

gain to paraphrase the Prime Minister, the UK referendum is the most important decision to be had in decades, with effects which will be felt by generations ahead. Yet, he does not take into consideration the different ‘attitudes’ within these countries.

Is David Cameron going against his own statements? Image from “Labour list

As an example YouGov, the internationally renowned internet-based market research firm, conducted a poll this month on Scottish political attitudes, including the UK referendum, and found that 55% would vote to stay against 28% who would vote to leave.

During the February 3rd European Parliament Plenary preparatory debate leading to the European Council summit, MEP Jill Evans (Greens/EFA, UK) said she represented Wales and mentioned the benefits that the EU membership has brought, stating that she found it to be ‘not very democratic’ that the UK would force Wales to leave.

The reality is that these four Countries do get separate treatment from the European Union, and many benefits. For example, just in 2013 Scotland received €370 million euros from the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), €270 million from the European Social Fund and €481 million from the Seventh Framework Programme for Research and Technological Development. As for the benefits Wales received, Mrs Evans commissioned a study on the matter, which is available for consultation.

Yet despite different ‘nations’, with different agendas, different interests and, indeed, different attitudes towards EU membership, the UK referendum will be solely based on the numerical advantage England has in terms of population, brushing the border with majoritarian dictatorship.

While the Scottish referendum debate saw plenty of talk of the UK being a ‘family of nations’, the referendum takes the approach of a one-size-fits-all paternalistic decision-making, making the will of parts of its constituency disappear in averages.

Europeans are ‘second class citizens’

On the European arena, on the other hand, despite it being a conglomerate of ‘nations’, only the British will vote upon it. However, this is a decision that will impact millions of other Europeans who have no say.

Their numbers are not just comprised of the low-skilled Eastern European workers that Prime Minister Cameron is trying to dissuade from coming to the UK to abuse the social system, but also those professionals that commute to London on a daily basis; those that are contributing to the UK economy and society but will see nothing in return for four years; those companies that will close due to reduced trade; those workers in other EU Member States that will lose their jobs as a consequence; and more generally, all EU citizens due to the reduced geopolitical and trade power of the EU as a whole, which means the loss or reduced security and economic advantages that come with it.

Despite having such an important impact on their life, these EU citizens are denied a say on such an important issue. It is allowing 64 million people to decide the fate of 341 million others, which is contrary to the spirit of a referendum itself.

An EU referendum is the only solution to make the UK referendum democratic

If the ‘will of the people’ has always been the foundation to hold a referendum, then based on the previous arguments, there are two conditions to make the UK referendum sufficiently democratic:

  • All UK ‘nations’ should have a say, since they are all self-defined, legitimate, interest-carrying constituencies. Only if all the ‘peoples’ of the UK vote to leave, meaning that they receive proper representation, will it be democratic.
  • Following the UK referendum, if the vote turns out to be ‘Remain’, then the rest of EU citizens should decide whether the cost (namely the terms and conditions of the UK’s deal) is an acceptable one, since the stakes are too high and Mr Cameron’s arguments fully apply to EU citizens as well.

Mr Cameron always argued on the domestic front that the reasons why condition n. 1 cannot be fulfilled is because the ‘rules do not foresee it’. The same argument can be applied to condition n. 2.

The only reason why this is not automatic is due to the fact that a European ‘people’ does not have a constituency, given that the EU is trapped between the federalist tendencies of some Member States and the confederate-intergovernmental approach of others.

However, the situation is novel and unprecedented, and new situations require new ways of thinking. If Europe is to maintain its tradition of democracy, that is.


Andrei Geica

Andrei Geica

Western Europe Team at InPRA
Andrei Geica was born in Romania and has lived in Italy, London, Athens and Brussels. He considers himself a European Citizen.

After obtaining his Bachelor's degree in Political Science and International Relations cum Laude he went on studying Politics and Government in the European Union, obtaining a Master's degree with Distinction from the London School of Economics and Political Science.

After working for the European Parliament in Information Campaigns, organising events and strategic communication regarding the institution's work in the field of Human Rights, he is now engaged with Dods Parliamentary Communications, providing EU legislative monitoring.
By joining InPRA he hopes to direct his passion and unique vantage point towards all who are interested in in-depth analyses of EU affairs
Andrei Geica