No going back to democracy’s ‘good old days’

Why referendums in EU nation-states are ill-equipped tools for retrieving a long gone past

Opinion | Johannes Perterer

The public is stupid. The public is smart. No matter which side of this debate you find yourself on, it seems safe to say that direct democracy is a tender subject. As a proponent of democracy, disqualifying it as a democratic instrument seems arrogant and even undemocratic. Or does it really? European countries have an ambivalent relationship with the will of the people. Most somehow trust the populace, but history has, rightly so, made Western governing systems cautious about putting absolute trust in the will of the public.

Nevertheless, referendums are in vogue in Europe at the moment. The overall reasons seem to be increasing discontent with representative democracy. In that regard, referendums are seen as remedy for the perceived distance between political elites and the public. However, what I believe is that the deeper issue at play here seems to be the following:

The public and political elites have an eery feeling that they are losing control

Due to the snowballing forces of globalisation, what used to be only ‘domestic policy’ in European nation states has been complemented with another dimension. This consists of several factors that come with globalisation, which strongly and directly influence what national governments are doing. An increasing share of domestic politics in European nations in the last couple of years consisted of dealing with global flows of capital, goods and people. Due to these forces, the public and political elites have an eery feeling that they are losing control and they are both reacting in similar ways to this irreversible development.

One salient example of this is the refugee crisis. In terms of statehood, the belief of the public the state has the monopoly on legitimate use of power is sacred. In Austria, that faith has deeply been disrupted during the recent refugee crisis. Beginning in August and through the fall of 2015, the Austrian government let several hundred thousand refugees traverse the country without any checks. This led large segments of the public to believe that the government, or the state as a whole, has lost control.

No going back

However, what many are in denial of is that there is no going back to the nation states that once existed decades ago, which were arguably more “in control”. On their own, nation states will fail to deal with the global challenges facing them in the long term.

After Brexit, right wing populists all across Europe are already trying to, in one way or another, saber-rattle their nation’s way to alleged “independence”. But if there is one thing the referendum in the United Kingdom will show, it is that national sovereignty in the 21st century, in or outside the European Union, will remain a relic of the past. The EU will set the terms of negotiations for Brexit, therefore undermining Britain’s sovereignty.

There is only one reasonable choice: reforming the EU and making it more democratic; not through referendums, but by holding elected representatives accountable

So what to do, one might ask? Global problems can only be adequately addressed through global actions, or at least, coordinated actions between groups of states. It is out of question that the political constructs created in order to do this, such as the European Union are far from perfect. But they are the only way of seriously dealing with what globalisation gives us, which is why there is only one reasonable choice: reforming the EU and making it more democratic; not through referendums, but by holding elected representatives accountable to our hopes, wishes and rights. Otherwise, we pawn ourselves into a corner where reacting, and not acting, is the only way in politics. Nativism might be an effective ideology to rally up votes for political opportunists, but it has nothing to offer to this globalised world that is of real, lasting value.


Johannes Perterer is a Mundus Journalism alumni and Foreign Affairs Reporter at the Austrian Broadcasting Company. Find him on Twitter: @pertererjo


This article is the fourth in a Mundus Collective series where our global network of alumni and post-grad journalism students share their perspectives on the implications of Brexit. All opinions are reflective of authors only and are written independently of any institutional affiliation. Image by Chloe Fill

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