Let them vote.

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Bring On the Other EU Referendums

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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Since the Brexit vote, Europe’s populists -- and the Scottish and Irish losers of the U.K. ballot -- have had referendums on their mind. What if they, too, get lucky the way Brexiteers did? Simultaneously, there’s a predictable backlash against plebiscites from the intellectual elite: How can people be allowed to give binary answers in complex situations they don’t fully understand?

The populists have the better case: Despite all its shortcomings, direct democracy is still the best way to figure out how people want to be governed.

The list of parties that want European Union membership referendums in their countries is long and growing longer: Alternative for Germany, France’s National Front, Freedom Parties in Austria and the Netherlands, the People's Parties in Denmark and Slovakia, Italy’s Northern League, the Finns, Portugal’s Left Bloc (only if the EU sanctions Portugal for its high budget deficit). 

The U.K. vote destroyed a powerful argument against referendums -- that they are most often won by those who control the agenda, as was the case with Russia’s spurious referendum in Crimea. That hasn’t always been the case, of course: the December 2015 Danish opt-out from Europol and, before that, the 2005 Dutch vote against the European constitution are two counter-examples (the French also rejected the European constitution in 2005). Yet David Cameron's government lost on a much bigger question, despite having controlled the timing and having most of the expert community on its side.

European populists can borrow whole pages from the U.K. “leave” campaign’s book. Everywhere in Europe, people are worried about immigration to some extent; everywhere, it’s easy to make the case that the unelected EU bureaucracy is usurping national sovereignty. Play up these two issues, perhaps even bend the facts a little, and people will be fired up. The opposite camp will always have it harder arguing for the status quo simply because it is comprised of the “establishment,” the very elites who are now arguing referendums are bad.

Jason Brennan of Georgetown University recently offered this analogy for a referendum:

You go to a doctor. But suppose your “doctor” doesn’t study the facts, doesn’t know any medicine, and makes her decisions about how to treat you on a whim, on the basis of prejudice or wishful thinking. Imagine the doctor not only prescribes you a course of treatment, but literally forces you, at gunpoint, to accept the treatment.

Brennan proposes an alternative to today’s democracy -- epistocracy, which would share out political power on the basis of knowledge. For example, voters would have to take “a very basic test of political knowledge” -- an arrogant suggestion that would probably end the career of any politician who dared to make it. 

Harvard economist Kennett Rogoff has argued that Britain’s government should have rigged the rules so that a simple majority couldn’t win: Perhaps a second vote should have been planned a year later, or the outcome should have needed 60 percent parliamentary approval, or both. “The idea that somehow any decision reached anytime by majority rule is necessarily ‘democratic’ is a perversion of the term,” Rogoff wrote. “Modern democracies have evolved systems of checks and balances to protect the interests of minorities and to avoid making uninformed decisions with catastrophic consequences. The greater and more lasting the decision, the higher the hurdles.” 

Theories such as this are even harder to explain to ordinary voters than the complexities of the U.K.’s EU membership. People don’t like being told they are too dumb to make decisions, especially if they consider themselves the source of power in a country -- something they’re told by politicians every time there’s an election. They may be more receptive to the opposite point of view, bluntly expressed by Dutch Freedom Party leader Geert Wilders in a recent column: “All over the West, we have been governed by fools.” Wilders isn’t calling for pogroms against Muslim immigrants, whom he would like Europe to keep out; he proposes a “non-violent rebellion to reclaim democracy and reassert freedom” -- something he believes has happened in the U.K.

Direct democracy can be tedious -- that’s why Switzerland, which has held 611 referendums since 1848, sees turnout of about 45 percent for votes.

Direct democracy can be manipulative. In Italy in 2011, a referendum was held on the repeal of laws mandating the privatization of water services: It was clear that citizens would vote against including private companies’ profits in water tariffs, and they did, by a 95 percent majority. 

Direct democracy can be wasteful. April’s vote in the Netherlands on the advisability of an EU trade deal with Ukraine came too late to change anything about that deal, and it’s not clear exactly what point the Dutch voters made by rejecting it.

Above all, direct democracy, with its simple binary logic, can produce results that appear unreasonable, destructive, abusive of minorities’ rights. In Croatia in 2013, a 65 percent majority voted to change the constitution to rule out gay marriage, contrary to the global and European trend that will eventually reach the Balkan nation anyway.

None of this means, however, that governments or elected officials should intervene to prevent such public engagement. One could argue that by doing so too often, they provoked the U.K. referendum result. The U.K. has only held three referendums so far -- two on EU membership, in 1975 and last week, and one on changing the electoral system, which voters rejected. Voters are used to not being asked their opinion on anything except the candidacy of their local parliament member. It’s unfair to blame many of them for believing they could cast a protest vote in last Thursday’s referendum -- and nothing would change. The Swiss know from long practice that every vote matters and that referendums change things.

Democratic systems don’t exist to produce optimal outcomes -- they exist for countries to be governed the way the majority of citizens desires. Minorities have their representation, their rights and institutions that protect them -- but it’s up to the majority to determine the general direction in which a country is going.

The governments of the European countries where populists are calling for referendums should allow them. Citizens need to practice making momentous decisions; they have the Brexit example before their eyes now, and they have the common sense to decide if this outcome is what they want. So far, polls do not register majority support for exits in any of the countries where referendums are proposed.

Governments, too, need to practice talking to people about complicated matters. David Cameron’s “remain” campaign chose the wrong tone and failed to get the main points across, perhaps reflecting its own ambivalence toward the European project.

It’s also important for the EU to get a renewed popular mandate. Winning membership votes wherever they take place would give confidence to leaders, officials and institutions. And countries that vote out -- that’s an eventuality not to be discounted -- can’t be good union members anyway, just as the U.K. couldn’t. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Therese Raphael at traphael4@bloomberg.net