European Democracies And The Referendum Trap

Anti-Renzi protest in Rome on Nov. 27
Anti-Renzi protest in Rome on Nov. 27
Catherine Chatignoux


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.

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The Olympic torch is lit at the Archaeological site of Olympia in Greece.

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Asham!*

Welcome to Tuesday, where Pyongyang test fires a suspected submarine-launched missile, Colin Powell is remembered, Poland-EU tensions rise, and yay (or yeesh): it's officially Ye. Meanwhile, our latest edition of Work → In Progress takes the pulse of the new professional demands in a recovering economy.

[*Oromo - Ethiopia and Kenya]


• North Korea fires missile off Japan coast: South Korea military reports that North Korea has fired a ballistic missile into the waters off the coast of Japan. The rocket, thought to have been launched from a submarine, is the latest test in a series of provocations in recent weeks.

• Poland/EU tensions: Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has accused the EU of "blackmail" and said the European Union is overstepping its powers, in a heated debate with EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen over the rule of law. The escalation comes in the wake of a controversial ruling by Poland's Constitutional Tribunal that puts national laws over EU principles.

• Colin Powell remembered: Tributes are pouring for former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, after his death yesterday at age 84. Although fully vaccinated, Powell died from complications from COVID-19 as he was battling blood cancer. A trailblazing soldier, he then helped shape U.S. foreign policy, as national security adviser to President Ronald Reagan, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs under Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, and served as the nation's top diplomat for George W. Bush. Powell's legacy is, by his own admission, "blotted" by his faulty claims of weapons of mass destruction to justify the U.S. war in Iraq.

• Russia to suspend NATO diplomatic mission amid tension: Russia is suspending its diplomatic mission to NATO and closing the alliance's offices in Moscow as relations with the Western military block have plunged to a new low. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced the move after NATO expelled eight diplomats from Russia's mission for alleged spying. Relations between NATO and Russia have been strained since Moscow annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in 2014.

• Ecuador state of emergency to battle drug crime: President Guillermo Lasso declared a state of emergency amid Ecuador's surge in drug-related violence. He announced the mobilization of police and the military to patrol the streets, provide security, and confront drug trafficking and other crimes.

• Taliban agrees to house-to-house polio vaccine drive: The WHO and Unicef campaign will resume nationwide polio vaccinations after more than three years, as the new Taliban government agreed to support the campaign and to allow women to participate as frontline health workers. Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan are the last countries in the world with endemic polio, an incurable and infectious disease

• Kanye West officially changes name: Some say yay, some say yeesh, but it's official: The-artist-formerly-known-as-Kanye-West has legally changed his name to Ye, citing "personal reasons."


The Washington Post pays tribute to Colin Powell, the first Black U.S. Secretary of State, who died at 84 years old from complications from COVID-19.


Jashn-e Riwaaz

Indian retailer Fabindia's naming its new collection Jashn-e Riwaaz, an Urdu term meaning "celebration of tradition," has been met with severe backlash and calls for boycott from right-wing Hindu groups. They are accusing the brand of false appropriation by promoting a collection of clothes designed for Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, but giving it a name in Urdu, a language spoken by many Muslims.


Work → In Progress: Where have all the workers gone?

After the economic slowdown brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, companies all over the world are taking advantage of loosened lockdowns and progress on the vaccine front to ramp up operations and make up for lost productivity. But the frenetic spurts of the recovery are getting serious pushback. This edition of Work → In Progress looks not only at the coming changes in our post-COVID economy, but also the ways our world is re-evaluating professional obligations.

🗓️ Hail the 4-day week Across the planet, the shorter work week trend is spreading like wildfire. Four is the new five. Spain began experimenting with the concept earlier this year. New Zealand launched a similar trial run in 2020. And in Iceland, efforts to curb working hours date all the way back to 2015, with significant results: 86% of the country's workforce gained the right to reduce work hours with no change in pay.

🚚 Empty seats In the United States, meanwhile, a severe lack of truck drivers has the country's transportation industry looking to hire from abroad. The only problem is … the shortage is happening worldwide, in part because of the e-commerce boom in the wake of worldwide quarantines. The Italian daily Il Fatto Quotidiano reports that companies will be scrambling to fill the jobs of 17,000 truck drivers in the next two years. The article blames low wages and the dangerous nature of the job, stating that Italian companies are making moves to employ foreign workers.

💼 Key help wanted It's all well and good to question current working conditions. But what about 20 years from now? Will we be working at all? A recent article in the French daily Les Echos posed just that question, and posits that by 2041 — and with the exception of a few select jobs — automation and digitalization will decimate employment. The piece refers to the lucky few as "essential workers," a concept that originated with COVID lockdowns when almost all labor halted and only a minority of workers capable of performing society's most crucial in-person tasks were allowed to carry on.

➡️


I'm worried for my Afghan sisters.

— Nobel Peace Prize recipient Malala Yousafzai Nobel Prize tells the BBC that despite the Taliban's announcement that they would soon lift the ban on girls' education in Afghanistan, she worries it "might last for years."

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Are you more yay or yeesh about the artist currently known as Ye? Let us know how the news look in your corner of the world — drop us a note at!

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