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The case for Direct Democracy

Andreas Gross and Bruno Kaufmann insist that the time has come to introduce direct democracy
into European Union (EU) decision-making.

Direct democracy is much more than just another referendum: both are vastly underestimated by most of the European political class, as can be illustrated by the way this political class is dealing with the “European Constitution”. Violence is also the antithesis of democracy. It is not a surprise, therefore, that times of warfare do not help to strengthen and deepen the development of democracy.

This seems to us one of the main reasons why the never-ending process of democratisation - one of the great projects of the 19th century - stagnated so markedly in the 20th century. The two World Wars and the Cold War did not favour the establishment of democracies and where they were established they did not develop very far.

In both respects times changed only in the last decade of the 20th century: more countries became democracies and democracy started to mean more than an election every now and then. Back in 1980, only 46% of the world’s population in 54 states were living in countries with fundamental democratic rights. By the year 2000 these figures had increased remarkably - to 68% of the world population living in 129 of the 190 UN member-states.

The dynamic of democratisation also underwent qualitative changes: in Central and Eastern Europe, most of the 30 new national constitutions were enacted by national referendums. More democracy and better democracy does not mean more elections, but a more direct, substantial and differentiated involvement of citizens in political decision-making. That is why the number of national referendums in the 1990s was more than triple the number of referendums in the 1980s: of the 405 national referendums worldwide between 1990 and 2000, 248 were held in Europe and more than 10% of these concerned questions around the European integration process.

The year of paradox

This year the world will face a paradox. At the same time as the dogs of war have been once more unleashed, direct democracy will be practised as never before. Several dozen referendums are timetabled in 13 different countries this year and many of them concern the European integration process and the reintegration of old European nations into the new European integration process. But the question remains: What will shape the future of transnational politics and European political culture more: the war in the Middle East, or the unique European experiences in direct-democratic citizen participation?

In this highly controversial context the European Union has an important role to play. And it has to be more serious and precise and perhaps also self-critical when it comes to constitution-making, referendums and direct democracy.

The European Union should not forget that the first and oldest European institution, the Council of Europe, was founded in 1949 with the ambition of creating a trans-European parliamentary assembly which should become the constitution-making body for Europe. The Cold War thwarted this great ambition of establishing transnational democracy. 13 years after the end of the Cold War, the ambition is back and the context is much more encouraging, European integration already has a successful history - but the readiness of the elites to integrate citizens into their transnational polity and policy making is still surprisingly low.

The reluctance of the elites

On the one hand we have the Convention method as a further step in the right direction, learning the lessons of the not very fruitful Intergovernmental Conferences of the past, where important decisions were taken by a handful of exhausted Prime Ministers at four o’clock in the morning. The other lesson of the recent history of European integration is that the citizens themselves must have a say. When the Irish voted for the second time last October on the Nice Treaty, this was the 30th occasion since 1972 of a national referendum on Europe. Twenty of these referendums took place within the last decade. And the evidence is that Europeans like the instrument of direct democracy.

Despite this, the European political elites are still reluctant. You can observe this in the Convention, but more so in the national political classes and even in the European Parliament. For decades it was impossible to argue in favour of a European constitution: the need for a real European constitution was ignored. This has changed dramatically in the last two years. But now one gets the impression that the whole issue of the constitution has been reduced to an instrument of public relations and has not been understood as a way of bringing the people back into the European integration process and giving it a new basis of legitimacy.

The reason for this trivialisation of the concept of the European constitution is this: the elites do not appear to accept the fact that since the French revolution every constitution is an agreement between citizens and that therefore you cannot make a constitution without involving the citizens. Trying to do this would be as utopian as the idea that one could go for a swim without becoming wet.

If one agrees that we have to have a European Constitution and that this is not possible without the positive support of the majority of the people in Europe and of a majority of states, then in considering how to organise such constitutional referendums one has to face up to the fundamental weakness underlying the Convention: it can only propose such procedures to the IGC, it cannot impose them on the EU Member States. Both the Convention and the necessary constitutional referendums (with the exception of the few countries in which major amendments to the EU Treaties have in law to be approved by the electorate) are still operating in legal and political vacuums. The de facto power of both instruments is greater - but it is still not great enough.

Referendums are about communication

We see two ways out of this dilemma. You either admit that the making of a real European constitution is not for now and you therefore have to convince the IGC to incorporate into the new treaty the requirement for a third Convention with this specific aim (this option may be both too realistic and too modest, especially for the present Convention members).

Or you introduce the right of tens of millions of Europeans to ask for a real constitutional convention: an even greater challenge. The Convention would have to mobilise people in order to put the IGC under such pressure from below that it would be forced to organise a European referendum on the draft European constitution prepared by the Convention.

A modified second option would be that the IGC would decide to first consult the people of Europe on the Convention’s draft, subsequently allow the Convention to integrate the different critiques and new ideas, and then organise the Europe-wide referendum with a double qualified majority requirement.

And of course: if you agree that there must be a referendum on the new European constitution to bring the people back into the process of European integration, to bring European integration back to the people and to establish a transnational polity with a genuine mandate to humanise the global economy and reinforce the European social model, you have also to agree on the right of a specified number of citizens to propose reforms to the constitution which would then once again be decided in further European referendums.

What is incompatible with the idea of a real European constitution is the answer the former Greek foreign minister, Theodoros Pangalos, gave (to one of the authors of this article) in the last session of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, when he said that there would be aspects of a draft constitution which are too complicated for ordinary people and that therefore referendums should not be provided for.

Arguing this way would mean not only the end of democracy, but also the disintegration of Europe: because in our time you can only integrate different people if you are prepared to make great communicative efforts. And communication is what a referendum is all about! People are happy to stay together if they are allowed to argue about their differences - but they hate staying together if they are not asked what they really want to do.


Andreas Gross is a political scientist, a lecturer at German universities on the global comparative analysis of referendum processes and Vice-President of the Parliamentary Assembly of The Council of Europe (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.).

Bruno Kaufmann is a peace and conflict researcher and radio journalist and heads the Initiative & Referendum Institute (IRI) Europe in Amsterdam (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.).

IRI Europe is the premier research and educational institute on direct democracy in Europe, providing news, facts, documentation and analyses. A special Forum page covers the EU Convention’s work around the Europe-wide constitutional referendum: