Running the risk: people power could derail Europe’s future

Richard Whitman
By Richard Whitman

Now that the member states have signed the constitutional treaty, attention turns to the ratification process. States will have to follow national ratification procedures and at least ten states will hold a referendum. It is the people of the EU who are going to have a significant say in whether the treaty gets ratified or not.

Not many states are required to hold referenda under their constitutions, so why are so many having a popular vote? The answer is because of a deep-seated public hostility across Europe to established party politics and a widespread scepticism about the value of European integration. In many parts of Europe, people do not trust their leaders. Ratifying the constitution via a Europe-wide referendum was proposed during the course of the drafting convention, chaired by former French president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. 97 of its members supported a resolution on holding such a vote and this idea has continued to rattle around discussions on the constitution. The calculations of political leaders in the countries which have called referenda are different. Past practice, coupled with the requirements of the Irish constitution, were such that a referendum in Ireland was always inevitable. In September 2003 Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen made the first announcement that a country would hold a referendum.T his came as no great surprise and was driven by domestic political imperatives. In the Czech Republic, the then prime minister, Vladimir Spidla, facing parliamentary opposition, conceded a national vote the following month. The Polish decision on a referendum was also motivated by party political divisions over the treaty. Most of the referenda are, however, taking place in the ‘old’ member states. Luxembourg’s decision to hold a referendum looks like a safe “yes” vote. The Dutch parliament voted in favour of holding a referendum. This decision was taken against the wishes of Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende and despite the fact that all the major political parties declared their support for the constitution. The rise of a sceptical anti-establishment current in Dutch political life has put the establishment on the defensive. The Dutch situation echoes the general rise in Euroscepticism throughout the member states with Eurobarometer polling showing a significant rise in dissatisfaction with the EU across time.

It was, however, the declaration in favour of a referendum made by UK Prime Minister Tony Blair in April 2004 that generated referendum momentum. Blair’s announcement, in the face of opposition from close cabinet colleagues, was a spectacular U-turn. The government’s change of stance brought its position into line with that of the opposition Conservative party and neutralized the question of a referendum as a domestic political issue. The decision to go to war with Iraq, against considerable popular opposition, and the subsequent failure to find the weapons of mass destruction on which the case for war was made, have resulted in a significant loss of voter confidence in the prime minister. Giving voters a say through a referendum was the least politically costly course of action. The UK decision had a profound impact. Not only did it influence the calling of a referendum in France, but it has also led to intensified debate within other countries – including Sweden and Germany. Blair’s decision created significant political heat for other European leaders, most particularly the French President Jacques Chirac, who reversed his previous opposition to a national vote. Governments will hope that momentum is gained through the referenda in the early part of2005, which are being held in countries where they are most easy to win. In this scenario there is a ‘domino effect’, with the more Eurosceptical publics being swayed by pro-constitution results in other states. The crucial event will be France’s referendum. A French ‘no’ would call the future of the treaty into question and halt ratification. A strong ‘yes’ might generate a more favourable momentum – but it is now down to the public to determine the future of the constitution.

Richard Whitman is head of the European Programme at Chatham House, formerly the Royal Institute of International Affairs in the UK. He may be contacted at [email protected]. More information about his work may be found at This article first appeared in European Voice (Volume 10 Number 38 4 November 2004).

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