With Brexit looming in the UK and unrest stirring across other parts of Europe, where does that leave European democracy?
Up to now it has been a harsh year for European politics. For the UK, Brexit has resulted in Westminster losing its grip on a political process and, if it is not careful, will also lose control over its representative democracy. Elsewhere in Europe, the populist AfD is progressing in Germany, the Italian coalition is reinventing democracy by forging inconceivable alliances to ensure that the people cannot vote in a general election, whilst France witnessed the Yellow Vests movement – highlighting the shortcomings of present-day politics when it comes to transforming a popular wish into a political reality. It all begs the question whether Europe has lost control of its democracies.
So much has been said about respecting the will of the British people, that it now quite obvious to many that the only way to get out of the present political impasse is to let the very same people let us know if, three years later, their will has changed. The people must decide how to get the UK out of the present political impasse. Although it may not please everybody, I ask myself (i), would a second referendum be helpful and, more importantly, advisable and (ii), why is it that Remainers are the only ones who seem to be seeking such a people’s vote?
It seems incredible that democracy in its purest form – a referendum – has paralysed the UK parliamentary democracy in such a way. The reasons for this are threefold – (i) the very nature of referendums, (ii) the question that was posed in 2016 and (iii), the unprepared and unforeseen answer to that question.
The root of the problem lies with the referendum and its question. The answer given – “Leave the EU” – is complicated to implement at the best of times. How can you expect an unprepared executive to implement an advisory will of the people that has not been sufficiently specified? In retrospect, you can reasonably argue that a referendum has no place in a parliamentary democracy when the country is not used to holding such a consultation and the electorate is not politically “mature” enough to handle such a sensitive democratic tool. David Cameron got it totally wrong when he did not make sure that a 60% threshold be applied to give the referendum result any validity. It is also strange that although the referendum was advisory, Cameron promised to abide by the result. He made this contradictory decision very clear to the British people and there was no going back on the decision to leave the EU. Of course, had the result gone the other way, this discussion would not be necessary.
[A referendum is] a national excitement where we put everything into one pot. A question is asked, people ask themselves others, and come to vote based on reasons that have nothing to do with the original question.– Michel Rocard (French Prime Minister, 1988-1991)
Referendums in parliamentary democracies may not be the answer, but constantly ignoring the will of the people, or at best, not being able to implement the result of a popular vote, only serves to highlight the shortcomings of a parliamentary democracy in its ability to translate public will into political reality.
I dared to ask several Facebook groups if it would be right that only those who voted in the 2016 referendum be allowed to vote in any second referendum. It was deemed to be a silly thought – to question the good functioning of democracy. “What about those who died,” some said. “Would they have to vote by proxy?” I suppose that the stupidity of the comment matches the silliness of my thought. Silly me to ask that the referendum be re-run with the souls of a non-negligible number of very old ladies who voted “leave,” even though I didn’t. Be that as it may, the participation of thousands of keen 18-year-olds who are in love with the idea of all being together in Europe, can do nothing but secure the result that all Remainers are praying for, and that should have been obtained at the first time of asking if 16-year-olds and EU nationals could have voted. Even I was furious to have been disenfranchised in such an obvious way and would gladly rest my ethics to one side for the sake of a greater good, and stand firmly behind Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative where anything goes so long as it is for a good cause.
That might well be a sincere question, but it is also, I am sorry, a silly one. The whole point here is that the vote *would already have gone the other way* if millions of people who were clearly the most likely to choose Remain, because the course of their lives depended on it quite so urgently and explicitly, had not been denied their democratic right to take part.A Facebook Comment
That’s just it, dare I say. If the 2016 vote had gone the “other way”, no one would have noticed how bad a badly organised referendum is in a democracy where the will of the people should be represented and carried out by parliamentarians. It is with the latter that lies the antidote to our morning hangover resulting from mixing too much democracy. Political parties must make it clear to the electorate on where they stand, not on the EU, but on organising another EU referendum. In fact, the instigator of it all, David Cameron, was doing nothing else but upholding democracy in all its glory, as well as his party. “If you elect me, you’ll have your referendum,” was his message. And it worked, proving that referendums can be obtained, if you ask politely.
In the meantime, the fact that the executive and legislative powers of Westminster are too close for comfort means that, in the UK at least, a prime minister can prorogue parliament without so much as a debate, and parliamentarians can resist the will of the very people who elected them.
Methinks it is high time for the UK to write a formal constitution.
George is a British/French national. He has a passion for oral microbiology (obtained a PhD in Lyon, France) and a passion for philosophy and politics.