Referendum on constitution capricious

THE constitution of the European Union can only come into force if each of the 27 member states ratifies it. The threat of the veto puts the spotlight on the domestic procedures by which member states choose to ratify, as well as on the capacity of governments to carry at home the ratification of the treaties they have signed up to abroad.

THE constitution of the European Union can only come into force if each of the 27 member states ratifies it. The threat of the veto puts the spotlight on the domestic procedures by which member states choose to ratify, as well as on the capacity of governments to carry at home the ratification of the treaties they have signed up to abroad.

Faced with the new EU constitution in 2004, several states chose to attempt ratification by popular referendum, forsaking normal parliamentary procedures. In the cases of France, Holland and the UK, the flight to plebiscite resulted from a loss of confidence in European policy. Now, the attempt to overcome the constitutional crisis has become transfixed on how to avoid holding further referendums. Only if the constitutional treaty is reduced in scope and force, it is argued, can ratification be swung through parliament and plebiscites suppressed.

This argument does a disservice to the European cause. Instead of undermining Europe in a bid to ditch the referendum, it would be better to martial the arguments against referendums.

The referendum is capricious. Whatever the formal question, a democratic public will take the chance to opine about whatever it chooses. The referendum is simplistic, requiring a crude answer to a complex question which is far more suited to the historic compromise of parliamentary scrutiny and deliberation. Parliamentarians should do the job they were elected to do.


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It is fanciful to think that a number of uncoordinated referendums, separated by national political frontiers, can add up to be a noble expression of the will of the European demos. There is yet no political party or indeed media operating across Europe that can put the case for the constitution in its proper post-national context.

Referendums make it easier to say No than Yes. The constitution is a sophisticated compromise. Some say it goes too far; others that it does not go far enough. Both are legitimate responses in their own terms, but they build an unholy alliance of negatives.

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Lastly, the populist device of the referendum contradicts the constitution which builds democracy while decidedly avoiding referendums. The constitution is designed to unite people. Referendums accentuate division, and leave in their wake some bitter hostilities.

In short, referendums on the EU constitution are capricious, simplistic, nationalistic, negative and divisive. It would be best to go back to parliaments.

Andrew Duff Is Liberal Democrat Euro MP for the East of England

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