fr en de

Europe and Diplomacy

Another way of looking at referendums

Do relations between the Member States of the European Union fall within the realm of diplomacy or internal policy? The question is not only a theoretical one as long as the referendum broadens the citizen’s will to take part in public decision making.

The Netherlands does not know how to resolve the contradiction between the vote of their Parliament and the referendum based on popular initiative on the association agreement with Ukraine; the UK is entangled in the implementation of the consultative referendum on belonging to the Union; Italy has still not digested all of the consequences of the "no" expressed in their referendum to Matteo Renzi and the impact this will have on its membership of the eurozone; Switzerland does not know how to implement the now old results of a referendum requesting the exit of the Schengen agreements. For many reasons unrelated to the question being asked the people say "no" to those asking the question, forcing them then to perform some curious balancing tricks. We need only to think of the recent example of Alexis Tsipras in Greece: to achieve the agreement of his fellow countrymen he organised a strange referendum in which he called to vote "no"; he won but then he developed the policy of those who voted "yes"!

To date it was taken for granted that diplomatic relations in terms of the higher interests of the States demanded a superior level of technicality, and even of secrecy, combined with a special kind of know-how. They were therefore the prerogative of the highest national authorities, since they enjoyed democratic delegation to decide the long term strategy, which did not marry well with major public debate. The creation of the UN, the treaty of Washington founding NATO, the Rome Treaty creating the European Community and even peace and trade treaties, just like declarations of war, were all, until now, the exclusive competence of the Parliaments and Executives. They were not submitted to referendum and there was very little protest about this.

It would therefore be a good time to protect what falls within the realm of diplomacy. If everything could be put to referendum, calling for answers that most of the time are based on having confidence in those asking the question, then real diplomacy would not be possible! We may as well rely on the popular feeling expressed in Tweets! Everyone can see here the danger a situation like this represents for international relations;  the representative regimes and their parliaments would also be seriously affected, likewise European integration.

Because of their indifference the Union's Member States have left many European developments in the hands of diplomacy. The Ambassadors representing their State in Brussels therefore have political responsibilities, often on instruction, sometimes in the vacuum left by their political leaders. We are pleased to note that due to their professionalism they protect the structure which national governments neglect too much. This is to be regretted since their task is sometimes hard and not in keeping with their traditional work.

Most of the issues addressed in the European institutions mainly involve internal policy. They could therefore - depending on the constitutional organisation - naturally be the focus of a choice in favour of the referendum. And since citizens too often feel that their democratic system comes to a halt at the doors of Europe, the use of these is increasing.

But in reality the States' European policy should firstly be integrated into normal procedures of democratic control. It demands the full involvement of national leaders who must assume their decisions, submit them to democratic control according to their constitutional rules and then Parliaments are not illegitimate! The organisation of a referendum is indeed often the simple proof of an internal democratic deficit or of the exceptional importance of a vital question.

So please, let us not deprive ourselves of the necessary margin allowed us by our diplomacies to contribute towards stable, constructive international relations, and let us consider that European policy is firstly an object of internal policy and make sure that it is debated as such, i.e. for example on the occasion of major electoral dates and therefore in the campaigns that precede them. This would avoid placing legitimately elected representatives in contradiction with popular votes which are not the less so.