Popular votes risk European unity

Popular votes risk European unity

Popular votes are a threat to European unity as EU citizens are growing weary of the continental bloc. By using them, national governments risk accelerating the collapse of the European project.

When reflecting on popular votes, EU founding father Jean Monnet could not hide his skepticism at letting citizens decide on an organization they did not understand and could not appreciate for its real value. Back then, the comment was a reflection of the geopolitical struggles the continent had just gone through during the first half of the 21st Century. 

Yet the recent tendency of European governments to let their citizens decide on EU matters holds the same risk of misunderstanding leading to the collapse of the continental bloc. Thereby, the president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, recently raised the alarm on plebiscites – like the UK’s – that could bring the EU to the brink of suicide.

Referendums are also being used as a way to directly challenge the EU by some governments. Hungary’s leader Viktor Orban has just called for a referendum on whether the country should be forced to resettle refugees. This will be the third referendum to be held in 2016 on EU matters (and the fifth in a year). Considering the EU’s recent traumatic experience with popular votes, the game the EU capitals are playing holds its share of political risks.

A risky business in recent history

Since the 1990s, the EU has faced five major beatings in referendums. The first in 1992 when the Danes voted against the Maastricht Treaty. Then it was the Irish’s turn against the Nice Treaty in 2001 and the Lisbon Treaty in 2008 – a treaty that was passed through parliaments in most countries to avoid a repeat of the two last traumas caused by the French and Dutch rejections of the 2005 Constitution Treaty. The rejection by the Greeks of the bailout deal last summer could also be added to the list, along with Denmark’s “no” on opting-in to EU policing and judicial policies.

Some of these popular votes were even used by member states as a bargaining chip to negotiate their membership or to obtain opt-outs of policies. Labeled the “à la carte” system, the result is a fractured Europe with member states opting out of certain policies and thereby making the political unity fragile.


Source: The Economist

Some of these popular votes were even used by member states as a bargaining chip to negotiate their membership or to obtain opt-outs of policies. Labeled the “à la carte” system, the result is a fractured Europe with member states opting out of certain policies and thereby making the political unity fragile.

What is changing now is that Europeans are not called to vote on the prospect of further integration. Instead, they will give their opinion on whether they should break with EU policy, or the EU itself, entirely.

Reflecting cracks in European unity

In this context, some upcoming key votes are all reflections of geopolitical struggles, and they have an important impact on the future of the continental bloc.

On April 6, the Dutch will vote on whether to topple the EU’s free trade agreement with Ukraine. Polls have repeatedly predicted that the Dutch would turn down the treaty over concerns about an overflow of Ukrainian immigrants. Such an outcome carries several risks. First, the free-trade agreement with Ukraine is a way of crystallizing the conflict towards a trade war. Cancelling the agreement would throw Kiev into a new stage of instability, which is exactly what Moscow is hoping for.

Second, it has the potential to awaken tensions on the EU’s Eastern front. Some member states are feeling the economic impact of counter-sanctions from Moscow, with Italy’s PM Matteo Renzi leading the charge. Others, including Poland, are seeking a more assertive approach against Russia, including in Ukraine. Both sides have so far been held together by Berlin, but the cracks could quickly deepen. In any case, the referendum will likely prompt an early review of EU sanctions against Russia, potentially leading to a drop-out.

But the worse nightmare for the European Union comes from Great Britain. Risks of a Brexit are manifold, with major economic consequences on both sides. There is also the risk that Britain leaving the EU would inspire other member states to launch renegotiation processes, potentially leading to a collapse of the Union. Similarly, Britain would be facing an internal crisis, with the Scots likely to launch a new popular vote on independence.

The EU would also face internal balancing issues. The bloc would be losing its largest army and a strong voice in foreign affairs. An essential part of Western foreign and security policy would thus disappear, including on the Eastern front.

Towards a new order

An ever-closer union has already been given up with Britain’s renegotiation. The Euro has been under constant strains since the debt crisis highlighted the monetary union’s weaknesses. Schengen is on the line, particularly with Hungary’s upcoming vote. Cracks on a variety of policies keep emerging, including on foreign policy as the Dutch vote illustrates.

There are several scenarios the current fragmentation could eventually play out.

An optimistic one would be a combined success on the economic front and effective leadership from Germany on the refugee issue. An acceptance of David Cameron’s deal in the referendum in June could prevent a new set of political instability to emerge. European governments would then have to decide on the future of the Union, probably launching a review of treaties in the next few years to reconcile diverging sensibilities and appease popular mistrust with an attempt to bring more legitimacy to Brussels.

However, the two first elements are not likely. The latest forecasts point to a weakening recovery and concerns over a banking crisis won’t help. Meanwhile, Berlin will undoubtedly struggle to create momentum for a common policy to effectively reduce the flow of refugees and share them across the continent. This is especially pertinent considering rising domestic pressure and the rise of anti-immigration party AfD in recent regional elections.

With risky popular votes ahead, what next for the EU?

The idea of further integration being more efficient than fragmentation to overcome the continent’s problems is growing more marginal in Europe. Thus the probability of a looser union is growing.

A return to early 21st century nation-states is improbable considering the level of interconnections between neighboring countries. But the split could take several forms that would depend on state-by-state negotiations based on multiple factors – including economic ties, domestic sentiments and foreign policy interests.

Blocs within the EU could emerge, with the core EU (with founding members Germany, Italy, the Benelux and France) watching the emergence of the Visegraad group and new partners in the East, a Northern/Scandinavian association, and a Southern group.

A second scenario is a return to a core Europe that would separate from its periphery, with the founding members in the core and potentially keeping the euro as their common currency. This would enable some current eurozone members to go back to printing their own currency in order to manage their monetary policy as a tool to foster an economic recovery. 

Another repartition of alliances could again see regional groups, with France attempting to build a Mediterranean Union, an idea former president Nicolas Sarkozy tried to develop during his term as a complement to the EU. Whatever the option, it seems that the European continent is set for another round of political uncertainty. The potential for a sudden split is present. Popular votes will only raise the odds of an eventual disunion.

Categories: Europe, Politics

About Author

Julien Freund

Julien is an analyst with a focus on Europe. He has worked as a lobbyist in Paris and Brussels and has written extensively on the rise of nationalist parties. He holds two master's degrees in geopolitics and international relations and in European relations, and received his BA in economics and social sciences from the Catholic Institute of Paris.