Britain’s accidental withdrawal from the European Union should give other countries pause before consulting their own voters directly in a referendum again.
The problem with referendums is that complicated political questions don’t usually lend simple “yes” or “no” answers.
The whole point of parliamentary democracy is that we can elect people to make such choices for us; to weigh the costs and benefits, to think through the long-term consequences, to make sure one group isn’t disproportionately affected over another. Most voters don’t have the time nor the interest to be part-time politicians themselves.
Referendum about what?
When referendums are called, too many voters will use them as a means of expressing their general approval or discontent with the incumbent government, the “establishment” or the status quo.
Opinion polls conducted before the referendum in the United Kingdom revealed that most voters didn’t actually want to leave the EU. Nor did they expect that would be the outcome.
Many were dissatisfied with how the bloc operated. Although many weren’t really sure how the bloc operated and relied on stereotypes and half-truths peddled by Britain’s Euroskeptic press and shameless politicians like Boris Johnson and Michael Gove.
The fact that they, of all people, led the “leave” campaign points to a second problem: politicians often use referendums to their own ends.
The reason David Cameron called the referendum in the first place was to satisfy Euroskeptics in his Conservative Party and stem defections to the United Kingdom Independence Party.
In the case of Johnson and Gove, they probably threw their support behind leave less out of conviction and more because they aspired to replace Cameron as prime minister.
Similarly, in Greece, Alexis Tsipras called a referendum last year on the proposed terms of his country’s bailout in order to gain leverage in negotiations with the rest of the European Union and the IMF. (To no avail — only days after the referendum, Tsipras was forced to accept the conditions he and his people had rejected.)
In Hungary, Viktor Orbán is calling a referendum this autumn on a EU plan to distribute migrants proportionally across the bloc’s 28 (soon to be 27) member states. Orbán opposes the plan and would use the referendum to keep Hungary out of it.
At best then a referendum only serves to confirm the choices voters made in an election. At worst, they produce the “wrong” result and plunge a nation into crisis.