European ‘referendum fever’ may harm democracy in the region

Source:Xinhua Published: 2016/6/20 0:13:01

Europe seems to be experiencing a "referendum fever," starting with the "Brexit" on June 23, followed by the constitutional amendment referendum in Italy and the refugee quota referendum in Hungary.

On the surface, referenda are the most formidable tool of democracy, giving voters a direct say on political, economic and social issues. However, behind the "referendum frenzy" in Europe, there are evolutions that may harm democracy.

Looking back on the referenda held in European countries in the past few years, it is easy to see that the democratic tool has been frequently misapplied.

First of all, referenda, created to compensate and remedy representative democracy, have been applied as a political tool to exert or fend off pressure.

Taking Greece's referendum during its debt crisis as an example, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras aimed to create more negotiation room from the EU and international creditors by extortion with Greek public will.

Second, referenda have become a channel for people to air grievances, rather than being decisive in major issues. The Dutch referendum, which was originally on the Association Agreement between the EU and Ukraine, turned into a protest vote against the EU by euroskeptics.

Third, referenda on occasions cover the essence of problems and postpone the outbreak of crises, making situation more complicated.

Frequent referenda show increased disappointment of the public at political elites, said Cui Hongjian, a senior research fellow and director of European Studies at the China Institute of International Studies.

Referenda, which are supposed to get citizens engaged in politics and make governments responsive, are also a double-edged sword, Cui said, as they seem to attract the broadest public will thus bring about authority and legitimacy, but in fact they are reflection of shirking responsibility by some politicians.

Critics argue that voters are forced to make decisions on complex issues about which they may not have complete knowledge. Referenda tend to create the illusion that complex issues can be presented in simple terms, and the vote is often reduced to a binary "yes" or "no."

Given the current situation in Europe, the spate of referenda may continue and cause political and social impact. First of all, inspired by Brexit, many European countries are expected to hold referenda to gain political ground domestically and force the EU to compromise.

Second, referenda make "reaching consensus" increasingly hard, even exacerbating contradictions and creating breeding ground for populism.

Stefan Lehne, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe in Brussels, said "it's almost impossible now to see how 28 states would ratify an EU reform treaty."

In the Brexit case, British Prime Minister David Cameron said the upcoming referendum can solve Britain's "EU problem." However, the referendum in fact strengthens opposition and exacerbates social division.

This is a commentary of the Xinhua News Agency.

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