The European Union lexicon, already stuffed with ugly words and phrases, needs to coin a new one: “plebiphobia.” Unlike some anxieties, the fear of referendums is well-grounded. Following Britain’s vote in June to leave the union, plebiscites this autumn in Hungary on migration and in Italy on constitutional reform may further destabilize the EU. More fundamentally, plebiphobia rules out the very reforms needed to prevent more Brexit-like uprisings.
The EU’s checkered relationship with referendums goes back a long time, restraining its otherwise seemingly relentless expansion. In 1972, Norwegians voted against membership and stayed out of the second wave of members – Britain, Denmark and Ireland – that joined a year later. A vote in Greenland in 1982, which had joined as part of Denmark, led to its exit from the European club in 1985. In 1994, Norwegians again disregarded the advice of national elites and voted against EU membership. That left Norway -- along with Iceland and Liechtenstein -- in the half-way house of the European Economic Area with essentially full access to the EU single market but no vote and little say on related European legislation.
Referendums have stalled the EU’s expansion not just to the north but in the heart of Europe. Switzerland, which holds the torch for direct democracy, has held two referendums on joining the European Union. The Swiss rejected integration both times. In 1992, they narrowly rejected membership in the European Economic Area, which they feared would be the first step toward EU membership. It didn’t necessarily make their lives easier. The Swiss government has since had to negotiate 120 bilateral agreements, which collectively provide less favorable access to the single market than entry into Europe’s economic area would have even though they also allow free movement of EU citizens. Now this arrangement is in jeopardy following a referendum vote in 2014 to cap migration.
Referendums have also restricted the reach of the euro zone, the just-about-beating heart of the European project. Whereas ill-suited economies in southern Europe were among the first to join the monetary union, two Nordic countries that could have coped with its rigors were unable to win popular votes. Although Denmark had secured an opt-out against joining the euro zone, the government nonetheless held a referendum in 2000 on joining. The Danes rejected the proposal, as did Swedish voters in 2003. Sweden has enjoyed an informal opt-out since then.
The EU’s increasingly strained relationship with referendums is no accident. Since 1972 there have been 55 EU-related national referendums, of which 46 have been held since 1992. Governments have been calling for plebiscites in response to the accelerated pace of integration as the EU has expanded from 12 member states in the early 1990s to 28 by 2013 (when Croatia joined) and ties among them have deepened, most of all in the monetary union that now has 19 members. Switzerland is the most inveterate referendum holder, having held eight altogether, but the practice is widespread. Of the 28 EU members, only five have not resorted to referendums, notably Germany, along with Belgium, Bulgaria, Cyprus and Portugal.
Referendums have most typically been held about membership, but they have also been prompted by significant changes in the EU treaties that govern relations among member states. These have to be endorsed by a referendum in Ireland, whose voters have learned the hard way that the European Union does not take no for an answer. On two occasions the Irish have rejected a new treaty, only to have to hold a second referendum to approve some minor concessions. But whereas pressure can be put upon a small state, it does not work for countries with more heft. In 2005, referendums held successively in France and the Netherlands voted down a treaty establishing a European constitution, although the substance of the plan was retained in the Lisbon Treaty of 2007.
That two of the six founder states rejected European integration inhibited a root-and-branch response to the euro crisis when it broke in early 2010. Wary of more close encounters with national electorates, euro-zone leaders led by German Chancellor Angela Merkel studiously avoided reforms requiring fundamental treaty changes. A minor amendment to the Lisbon Treaty forestalled legal challenges to the creation of the European Stability Mechanism, but the bailout fund was itself created under international rather than EU law. Fenced in by existing treaties, the institutional reforms made to prop up the insecure foundations of the monetary union were makeshift themselves.
Making matters worse, European leaders no longer fear only EU-related plebiscites. They are especially concerned about Italy’s upcoming referendum on constitutional reforms because Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has said he will resign if the vote fails to endorse his drastic shakeup of the parliament. Renzi’s departure would inject political uncertainty into the euro zone’s third-biggest economy, already shaky because its weak banks are weighed down by bad loans.
Plebiphobia threatens to reduce the EU to a state of paralysis. There is an unwelcome parallel to the ailing condition of the European project in the early 1980s, when it was unable to tackle economic stagnation -- dubbed “eurosclerosis” -- because of national vetoes of decisions made in the Council of Ministers. The stalemate was broken when the Single European Act of 1986 did away with unanimity, which allowed the single market to be created. Now the blockage lies in making additional changes to the treaties. If it persists, the European Union may find Brexit the least of its worries.