12 February, 2007
The long path to a European Referendum? Report from a meeting in the European University Institute (Florence)
The demand for a European referendum is becoming more and more popular. However, there is little agreement on how a European referendum can be conducted and what consequences it will have. Accordingly, twenty high-level academics and experts from the European institutions met last week in the European University Institute in Florence, to discuss political and legal problems of a European referendum.

The debate was interesting and important for the work of the UEF and from my personal point of view - having been present as a guest in the meeting - it proved that many questions concerning the introduction of a European referendum remain open.

It is important to put the discussion about a European referendum in the perspective of the traditional federalist struggle for a democratic European federation. In 50 years of European integration, the EU has not yet succeeded in overcoming the democratic deficit. Many important decisions are taken behind closed doors by high-level diplomats, not by the elected European politicians. Citizens neither understand EU decision making, nor do they feel involved. The solution is easily found but very difficult to implement: The EU needs to be transformed into a supranational parliamentary democracy, based on a strong European parliament, a European government and elements of participatory democracy. This requires institutional reforms, the strengthening of the European democratic infrastructure (strong European political parties and European political foundations) and the formation of a European public sphere, in which truly pan-European debates take place. A European referendum can play a role in this development. It would give citizens the chance to participate actively in deciding on the policy of the EU. Further it could provide the arena that is necessary for pan-European debates to take place.

However, the discussion in Florence has shown once again the difficulties. First of all there are numerous legal restraints. Representatives of the European institutions and other legal experts agreed that currently there is no legal base for conducting a European referendum, neither a consultative, nor a binding one. To introduce such a legal base would require a treaty change, which is not very advisable in times when the European Constitution is not yet ratified. The introduction of a European referendum would also force several member states to change their national constitutions. Many of the participants in Florence saw it as very unlikely, that a legal base on the European level can be found or can be introduced and that the national constitutions are amended, before the EP-elections in 2009 take place.

Besides the legal view, also the political implications should be kept in mind. Asked who will organise the referendum, a Commission official responded immediately that this could not be task of the Commission, since it has neither the competence to do so, nor the means. The European Parliament would most likely answer in a similar way. This would leave it up to the member states to organise the referenda. Learning from previous referenda about European issues, where mainly national topics were discussed, mechanisms have to be introduced to ensure that the referendum is actually pan-European.

How to count the votes in the referendum remains another open question. It would be desirable that a European referendum is won, if the majority of the Union citizens vote in favour, independent from the different results in the member states. But for many years to come, the governments in those states, where a majority has voted against the question, will have problems to justify the ratification of the respective document. Furthermore it is important to discuss which questions can possibly put forward for a European referendum. Many speak in favour of introducing the European referendum to ratify the European Constitution. However, there are doubts that a European referendum can already be conducted in 2009 and that citizens would be able to take an informed decision on a long and detailed document such as the European Constitution. What are the other possibilities? A European directive on abortion, lowering the voting age to sixteen, introducing a European environmental tax?

Especially the debate about the chicken and the egg splits the advocates of a European referendum in two camps. Will a European referendum contribute to the development of a European demos, a European public sphere and European democracy? Or do we first need some reforms and have to wait for the European public sphere to further develop, before a European referendum can be more than the sum of 27 national referenda? The conference in Florence was useful because very concrete questions concerning a European referendum were raised, though few of them could be answered. For me the conclusion is the following: One should not have the illusion that conducting a European referendum in today's EU will be an easy task. There will be no European referendum before 2009 and much remains to be done for a European referendum to take shape one day. However, UEF should continue to work for a democratic Europe and the struggle for a European referendum can be one element of our struggle.


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