3. Nov. 2005

The Swiss European Referendum paradox

What European referendum makers may learn from the two successful Swiss referendums on European affairs. From Andi Gross, political scientist, Scientific Institute for Direct Democracy, St-Ursanne.

One thing has to be made clear from the outset. Europeans should not have any illusions concerning the position of the majority of the Swiss voters towards the European Union. Both, the EU-membership and the Constitutional Treaty of the EU (ECT), would be rejected by the majority of the Swiss people and the Swiss cantons, if they would be invited to vote on them during the year 2005.

This has, by the way, nothing to do with Direct Democracy and everything with the way Switzerland survived the three European wars from 1870 until 1945 and the dominant perception of this way until 1990. The Parliament would not decide in another way today. And don't forget: The mirror is no responsible for the face you see every morning. So don't blame referendums when you don't like their outcome. Think about, why many citizens did not vote the way you would have liked them to do so, what you may learn from there referendum behaviour and what you could do better next time.

But it may have come for many Europeans as a surprise this June and September, that it was this strange euro sceptical country in the heart of western Europe which provided Europe which the two euro-positive referendums while the EU-founders France and the Netherlands depressed convinced Europeans with there two anti-ECT-Referendums. What is the explanation for this kind of European referendum paradox? Is there something to be learned for Europeans who want to associate the europeanisation of Europe with the Democratisation of Democracy?

Yes, there are such lessons to be learned. They are of different levels and of a different character. Some concern the design of the referendums (1), some the culture of there use (2) and some the way they are realised (3). Please don't mind, that I don't want to repeat in this articles issues concerning the essential role of the Design of Direct Democracy for its substance, the many shortcomings and procedural weaknesses in the making of the ECT, which undermined its chances to be accepted by the peoples and the need for a real carefully designed European constitution, not only to strengthen the European Integration but also the substance of our democracies.

1. Differences in the design

1.1. People prefer those votes, they provoked themselves. The French and Dutch Referendums actually were plebiscites; decided by the governments, not provoked by a minority of citizens who collected some signatures to secure a vote by all on a decision made by the parliament. Plebiscites are always full of hidden thoughts and agendas of those who decide to organise them. With the consequence that too many of the invited voters do not vote on the issue which was put to vote but on those who decided to do so, the government or the majority in power. This was clearly the case in France, a little bit less in the Netherlands, not at all in Switzerland, where the government had a clear position on the issue, but not in the decision why it came to a vote. This was done by a minority of people, who used there participatory right which is enshrined in the constitution.

1.2. The great challenge of a referendum on a constitution is that a constitution assemblies many different political fields which may produce many different opponents but very few supporters because they hardly ever get every-thing they hoped for, but where always obliged to make compromises. But this is not a argument against constitutional referendums; on the contrary: A constitution which is always an agreement between the citizens needs a referendums as footballer needs a ball. But it's the real challenge for the design of the constitution making process: He has to be transparent, inclusive, participatory, communicative and carefully handled in order to diminish the risk of the accumulation of opponents, which was so badly done by the leaders of the convention and the governments concerned.

The Swiss government and parliament respected this fact by avoiding packages: They brought every policy issue which has been fixed in a special treaty with the EU to a special parliamentary decision. So the national-conservative EU-opponents in Switzerland had to collect signatures against the association of Switzerland to the Schengen/Dublin-Treaty separately to those against the enlargement of the treaty for free movements of people to the ten new EU-member countries. The government even decided to vote on these two European issues on two different dates - one in June , the other in September, in order to avoid a accumulation of negative dynamics or the mixing up of the two different questions and topics.

The more precise a question or a policy issue is the more it is possible to avoid that people vote on questions which have no rational connection to the issue on the ballot box.

2. Differences in culture

2.1. The more people are used to vote and the more issues are put to a vote, the more people stick in there opinion formation to the issue on the vote and do not mix this up with other policy issues of concern or critic. In France the EPT Referendum was only the second referendum in European affairs in 13 years, in the Netherlands it was the first referendum in modern times at all: No wonder, that so many questions and issues formed the opinion the citizen made up for their vote.

2.2. The Swiss way of choosing bilateral treaties as a way to find a relation to the EU and in order to solve problems of a common concern was already the consequence of a lesson the swiss political class got from the people in a referendum decision. 1992 the majority of the Swiss voters (with a participation score of 78 % !) and of the Swiss cantons rejected the membership of Switzerland in the European Economic Area (EEA). A relation which Norway, Island and Liechtenstein are part of and which damages the national autonomy and self-determination in economic spheres much more than the treaty based relation Switzerland could establish since 2000 with the EU.

This means that the opponents of some of the treaties could not put into question the basic rational of the system chosen by the government and the majority of the Parliament. They illustrated by doing this a responsiveness to a former referendum decision which increased there legitimacy and the legitimacy of the form of the relation which they have chosen to establish with the EU.

Neither in France nor the Netherlands you may find similar confidence and legitimacy building measures: In France the 51%- winners of the Maastricht Referendum promised to change there way of building Europe by including the citizens much more , what never happened since then. In the Netherlands the government restricted its direct democratic opening to the referendum and a single moment, ignoring the much more creative initiative rights as well as enlarging the field of direct democracy to home issues - all of this did not help but undermine the trust sceptical citizens may invest in the government.

2.3. One of the big shortcomings of Referendums are that they are digital. You have only one choice in often complex issues: yes or no. The more seldom referendums are held the more you increase this structural problem. The more you allow referendums the more people get used to be able to adjust there vote. They become aware that they often get another chance, that soon a similar issue will be put again to a vote and they are able to slightly nuance there vote and expression. By building up a culture of referendum votes (lets say at least four or six a year) you increase also the chance that the people really vote on the issue they are asked to because the know that if they have other concerns they will have an other opportunity to vote on these other matters in the forthcoming years too.

3. Differences in practise

3.1. If an important issue is on the ballot the members of the Swiss government, all 246 federal parliamentarians and many party members of all levels are ready to spend every evening during three or four months - sometimes even a half a year - with voters in smaller or bigger assemblies and to discuss with them directly or by the media. This creates a enormous communicative momentum, ordinary citizens begin to think and discuss about these issues in private and semi-public spheres and a long and very diverse and multileveled opinions formation process is established in the society. This happened only in France, but not in the Netherlands. In France the public debate started already last autumn, more than six months before the vote, in the Netherlands it started only six weeks before, many of the most prominent politicians did not engage themselves and the dutch public debate was neither intense, nor deep nor wide if you compare it with the ones in France or Switzerland. But the quality of the outcome is essentially marked by the quality of the process which leads to the outcome - a basic rule, all proponents of Direct Democracy should keep in mind.

Andreas Gross

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