Referenda in the EU: A Misconception About Democracy

February 27, 2017


There is a misleading axiom that is spreading out, infecting the electorates of western liberal democracies: “the more direct the expression of the popular will, the more democratic the decision outcome of the process”. A way of reasoning that not only appeals the most obvious predators, the populist movements, but one that also swallows up the whole political system into a vicious circle of short-termism and non-rational decisions.


The abused instrument of direct democracy

The idea behind the institution of referendum is that of letting people choose, in a dichotomic and direct way, the policy they prefer or want to repeal. This actually uses to work well when there is symmetry of information between those who liven up the electoral campaigns (the politicians or the experts…) and the voters: virtuous examples belong, not by chance, to the spheres of civil rights and matters of consciousness (such as divorce or abortion). However, when the harmony of the symmetric information and, mostly, of interests breaks down, the outcome is likely to be non-optimal for anybody.

This is oil feeding the fire of populist movements, which more and more often call for the use of referenda (or similar instruments of direct voting) as best democratic decision making process.

They do so implicitly affirming that parliamentary debate and compromise (as well as anything that involves representation) are mechanism affected by a democratic deficit, since the institution of representativeness is presented as a way by which some member of “the establishment” can more easily govern, redirect or even betray the popular will, the only truly democratic power.

But such propositions, even if more and more often diffused, present several logical misconceptions:

  • Parliaments are elected and, therefore, through popular legitimation, have no “democratic deficit” whatsoever; the attacks of populist movements are simply politically profitable rather than founded since they provide an easy-to-accept scapegoat to frustrated electorates;

  • Parliament is the locus of conflict solving, since it is where parties can negotiate over policy preferences, escaping from the tyranny of the majority toward decisions which best mirror society as a whole; presenting this process as a mean in the hands of some evil politician to exploit the herd of the people is quite nonsensical (even though bad politicians do exist);

  • Referenda typically do not respond to the real problem since, in the absence of symmetric information, electoral campaigns and propaganda will tend to present simple solution for oversimplified questions or even to promise outcomes out of the domain of the referendum itself. The last constitutional referendum in Italy was a clear example of such dynamics;

  • Referenda are an oversimplified decision-making process which cannot, of course, respond to problem which are, by nature, not simple. The problem is that this lack of effectiveness may be far from being perceived by electorates. This is even more likely if some party has an interest in not presenting the limits of this tool;

  • Referenda polarize the electorate due to the very core nature of this electoral institution, that is a deciding between 2 options. This incentivises the negative electoral campaigns, which exploit the usage of scaremongering and a us and them tribal approach to problems which may be funny on football pitches but are absolutely unhealthy for democracies;

  • Referenda usually lead to outcomes which are not representative of society, since the decision is taken with respect to the majority among those who had the right to vote and exercised it. This effect can, of course, be mitigated by a quorum but it is not eliminated. The Brexit case assumes quite scaring shades if we appreciate that a bit less than a half of the British people might lose a certain amount of rights against their will;

  • Referendum decisions tend to be short-sighted due to the fact that those who will be bound by the decision don’t have the right to vote it and electorates are likely not to internalize their responsibility for the future;

  • Referenda can trigger ambiguous political considerations since the electoral results can be interpreted in several different ways in order to provide the party with the most profitable “presumed fact”. Brexit is a clear case in which the result of the vote was used to propose the most disparate statements;

  • Often, there is no clear post-electoral scenario, as a consequence of some of the concerns expressed above, leaving countries in uncomfortable limbos of uncertainty. Again, both the Italian and the British referenda are clear examples;

  • A referendum is expensive. Not only from a monetary perspective, but also because the points above present a series of socio-economic costs which are not internalized by voters in their decision. Costs which will have to be paid by someone more or less consciously and consensually in the future.



Of course, virtuous examples of the usage of referenda are excluded from the considerations above, but they are not by chance: in fact, when there’s symmetric information between politicians and voters, when the issue in question and therefore the outcome of the vote is clear, campaigns tend to be fairer and decisions to be widely considered “right” in the future. Belonging to this category those conquests for personal, civil and moral rights.
But when the instrument of referendum becomes a weapon in the hands of populist movements, in the absence of constraints (for example, the Italian Constitution wisely prohibit the usage of popular consultation over matters of fiscal policy and international treaties) the outcome is a war of large numbers between rich and poor, educated and uneducated, young and old, globalist and nationalist, short and long sighted, rational and non rational, winner and looser, right and wrong, us and them.

And who knows which is which and who is who.

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