PARIS — Long live the people! For a few months now, referendums have been blooming all over Europe. In Britain, to decide whether or not to leave the European Union. In Hungary, to ban European Union refugee-sharing quotas. In the Netherlands, on the EU's pact with Ukraine. Now in Italy, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi is going for broke Sunday by submitting his Constitutional reform to a popular vote.
Referendum fever may also be coming soon to France, where François Fillon — just chosen as candidate for the center-right party Les Républicain in next year's presidential election — promised to hold five major ballot measures if elected. It's as if consulting the people has become the new panacea against general disenchantment, a miracle cure for the democratic crisis that's ailing Western countries.
And in principle, it does sound like a good idea. What better than to give people their voice back, at a time when they feel increasingly shut out by political powers-that-be. Having the population involved in public life can be a good means to reconnect, to renew the dialogue. In practice, however, the referendum solution all too often leads to disaster. Even Hungarian nationalist leader Viktor Orban, who had thrown a populist line to the electorate by asking them to reject Brussels' refugee quotas, can vouch for it.
The referendum path is strewn with pitfalls. Although it can be relevant as far as strictly local or national issues as concerns, it's bound to fail on more complex issues. How many voters, for example, can truly grasp the innumerable twists and turns of a trade deal? There will always be many people ready to reject the whole thing because of one point of disagreement. An accord in the EU being the result of a 28-nation compromise, a referendum puts the whole European community at risk of being blocked, or of seeing European democracy being denied.
There's another downside to referendums: They divide a populace. That was plain to see during the Brexit campaign: In addition to plunging the whole of Europe into an existential crisis, it fractured the British nation in a profound and lasting way, creating divisions between young and old, urban and rural, between the winners and the losers of globalization.
Passions of politics
In countries with no referendum culture, the campaign invariably creates a poisonous environment. "The debate quickly becomes demagogic," notes Thierry Chopin, associate researcher at the Paris Center for International Studies and Research. "[Referendums] unleash political passions and the populist rhetoric drags public opinions down."
Italian voter in 2011— Photo: Niccolò Caranti
Debate inevitably leads to what the researcher calls "an agglomeration of oppositions" as public opinion on all sides grows more prone to sanction leaders. "It's a question of challenging more than actually trying to agree on something," Chopin says. "We rarely answer the question that's being asked. We judge first those who ask the question and we react to a context."
Matteo Renzi could soon learn this the hard way. He rushed headlong, in an almost suicidal way, in a plebiscite of his constitutional reform. All polls point to his likely defeat, even though many voters are still undecided. You can bet that, given the current context, Italians will be judging their leader's mediocre economic record more than the merits of the proposed reform. In times of crisis, direct democracy becomes a veto democracy.
Quoting Spinoza, philosopher André Comte-Sponville talks about the "sad passions" that drive referendum politics. Should political leaders follow their peoples when they decide to leave a political union, to close the borders or reinstate the death penalty? "Sovereignty belongs to the people, yes, but that doesn't mean the people are always right or that all its decisions must be approved," Comte-Sponville says. "Politicians have a responsibility to enlighten the people, to bring them perspective, intelligence and serenity rather than succumb to the unleashing of passions."
Still, there is no denying that people have lost their confidence in their elected representatives because of both corruption and incompetence, while the education level of voters keeps rising. "The rehabilitation of representatives depends on their meeting the peoples' demands," Thierry Chopin says. Until then, it seems, the people will continue to demand some form of democracy-by-referendum.