Select Committee on European Scrutiny Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 20 - 23)



Mr Steen

  20. The Swiss have a referendum. Every three weeks there is another referendum about something. It does not do them much good. One of your suggestions is that there should be a greater use of referendums. Bearing in mind the turn out at all our local elections is pretty appalling and at local government elections it is even worse, I am wondering why you think this is a good idea, both for constitutional changes and for major policy issues. Is there not a danger that Europe-wide referendums could be used to override the views of Member States such as the United Kingdom? What safeguards would you introduce? It strikes me that that is perhaps one of your less good ideas.
  (Professor Bogdanor) Thank you. The Swiss have a referendum on average once a year and turn out is generally under 50 per cent. That is a problem. Most democracies however use referendums . They use them fairly infrequently as we do. Most democracies which use referendums have not had more than 20 referendums at most. I was arguing for the use of the referendum in Europe in two ways. First, for constitutional change, to have a single referendum in all of the European Union member states perhaps on the same day, to validate these changes. Some countries, Ireland and Denmark for example, are required through their constitutions to hold referendums to validate Treaty amendments such as, the Nice Treaty and the Amsterdam Treaty . Thecase for that is to secure legitimacy for these changes. I think it is fair to say now that with a less deferential electorate legitimacy is not necessarily given simply by a parliamentary vote. This is why the Prime Minister has said there should be a referendum before we enter the euro because it is not given legitimacy just by MPs saying, "We support it." We need a wider legitimacy through the people. That was also so in 1975 when we had the referendum on whether we should remain in the European Community. For the same reason, I think, Secondly, that when you have major departures in the Community—obviously the euro is one and possibly the Social Chapter as well—they too should be legitimised by a referendum. There are some major decisions which are not given legitimacy just because politicians support them . This is particularly so perhaps in Germany, where all the major parties are sympathetic to further European integration, but there is obviously a swathe of opinion which is not so sympathetic. I believe that to secure full legitimacy you need popular support. Otherwise, there is a great danger—not in Britain but in some continental countries—that the only opposition parties are extremist parties who could pose a threat to democracy. That is the reason why I support greater use of the referendum.

Mr Cash

  21. May I declare an interest in having taken a very substantial part in a number of attempts to get referenda, not only in this country but also elsewhere? I agree with you 100 per cent on this. The question is whether the mechanics of any such referendum, the questions asked, the manner in which the costing arrangements are to be devised, all the problems which arise from compatibility between the different electorates, whether there should be compulsory voting and all that kind of thing, is really an integral part of it. Other than that, I would agree with you entirely, that these issues do require the consent of people and that parliamentary decisions driven by the whip system, which I am extremely critical of, in these matters really have to be handed over to the people.
  (Professor Bogdanor) Both Mr Cash and I favoured a referendum on the Maastricht Treaty, though we might have voted different ways on it. I do not regard the question as being a difficult one because the question would simply be, "Do you approve of a particular treaty or not?" I think the question of turn out is crucial. One proposal being mentioned now in Britain, particularly as a result of low turn out in the last general election, is compulsory voting which tends however to go against our own institutions. There is compulsory voting in Australia of course and in a number of countries of the European Union. If one is worried about low turn out, one could impose a minimum voting requirement for endorsement. You could say that unless, shall we say, 30 per cent of the electorate vote yes or 40 per cent of the electorate vote, the measure will not go through. That was done in our Scottish devolution referendum in 1979 when there was a 40 per cent qualified majority. 40 per cent of the registered electorate had to vote yes. That led to the defeat of devolution because there was a small majority in favour of it, but only 33 per cent of the electorate voted yes. If one is worried about low turn out—and I believe there are good reasons to be worried about low turn out—that might be one proposal one could consider. I am more sympathetic to that than I am to compulsory voting which I think many people would regard as an infringement of their freedom.

  22. What about the costs and the expenses of a referendum? That is a crucial question, is it not?
  (Professor Bogdanor) Yes. There is a large problem of course about making sure that one side does not have too great a financial advantage. However none of the political science evidence that I have seen has shown that one can buy elections. There are many cases in the United States of extremely expensive campaigns for the Senate failing and people getting into the Senate despite spending fairly small amounts of money, so it is not perhaps as serious a problem as some may think but it is important to secure a level playing field.

Roger Casale

  23. It seems to me, with respect, that there is a tension in your argument between, on the one hand, wanting to increase the EU's capacity to act and, on the other hand, wanting to have more public involvement and participation in the EU. That comes out very strongly around this issue of the referendums because, on the one hand, you could have a referendum with people participating; on the other hand, it could bring paralysis to the EU or, at best, it would mean going at the rate of the slowest. I agree that there has ben an erosion of trust in the capacity of political systems everywhere in Europe and a general disengagement of the citizen, even a lack of any relationship between the citizen and those who govern.. This tendency seems to me to be particularly acute in the case of the EU. I wonder if you could just make a few comments as to how you see the role that national parliaments and national parliamentarians might plan in overcoming this disjunction, between the European citizen and the European state.
  (Professor Bogdanor) There is in one sense a conflict between the effectiveness of European institutions and their legitimacy in the sense that the referendum is a conservative weapon, with a small `c'. It is a check upon change. On the other hand, one could argue that Europe can only be effective if it has the support of the people behind it. That is what I think it lacks at the moment. I would argue that the referendum could be, in certain circumstances a powerful battering ram for the further development of Europe. I do not think there is necessarily a conflict because I think a government with the strength of a referendum behind it could push things further. I think the 1975 referendum on Europe was a very good example of that. Without that, Europe would not have been legitimate in many people's eyes. It was legitimate for what you might call the political establishment, when the Conservatives took us in, in 1973; it was not legitimate for the majority of the people. Similarly, with devolution. Without those referendums, people might not have felt they were thoroughly legitimate. Obviously, this does not mean that national parliaments do not have an important role. It seems to me that it is for national parliaments to exercise that role. The two chambers of Westminster are doing that but part of the difficulty is that the issues coming from Europe are often highly technical issues; they do not have any immediate political pay-off and they are not the most glamorous of political issues to deal with. That is part of the problem for national parliaments because there is no reason why national parliaments should not scrutinise the activities of their governments more closely than they do, though I think we, together with the Danes, probably scrutinise European matters much more effectively than many other Member States.

  Mr Connarty: Thank you for attending the Committee and I hope that your remuneration is adequate to the excellence of your evidence, taking on board the remark you made earlier about payment and professorships. You have given us a very thoughtful series of responses and we will use them in our final deliberations. Thank you very much.

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