Beyond Plan B and C: On the use of citizens’ initiative and referenda

January 22, 2016

After Syriza’s surrender in July 2015, the European left has been struck by an aporia. It is now widely believed, on the one hand, that the EU is undemocratic and non-reformable; and on the other hand, that the plan B, a withdrawal from the euro or the EU, would boost disintegration into nationalist and possibly hostile states. Is the Left, therefore, doomed to merely criticizing the latest austerity measures and attempts at narrowing down democracy, without being able to shape overall developments?

It is at this conjuncture that Yanis Varoufakis wants to launch a third alternative to renationalisation and the anti-democratic European institutions. He calls this alternative “the plan C”, which aims at democratizing the EU. Varoufakis launches this project on 9 February in Berlin. Any initiative to democratize the EU may or may not lack grounding in terms of its normative justification, political support, or political feasibility. While normative justification may not be a problem for Varoufakis’ initiative and one can always hope to build and gather political support, the question is: is the initiative politically and legally feasible?

Anyone interested in changing the institutions of the EU must change the EU Treaty. If the Left in the broad sense of the term prefers a more Keynesian, social democratic or socialist Union, it will have to get the majority in most member states to support its initiatives. Yet it is difficult for the Left to win elections if the voters realize that the Left parties and politicians are powerless to make any significant difference unless the majority of member governments are leftist, which they clearly are not. And even if they were, the process of revising the Treaty could turn out arduous. All this seems to indicate that the only feasible alternative is the Plan B, which will be discussed in Paris this weekend (23-24 January 2016), but this only serves to revive the aporia.

I know only of two ways for the Left to realize significant political changes in the EU relatively quickly: citizens’ initiatives and referenda on the euro and related fiscal discipline. The crux of this idea lies in the way referenda are designed. My proposal goes as follows. Civil society organizations and interested political parties should use the mechanism of citizens’ initiative to call for referenda both in the EU as a whole and within member states at the same time. The European Citizens’ Initiative requires a minimum number of signatories in at least seven EU countries and all together at least 1 million signatories. Many member states have similar national systems with their own requirements and implications. These can be used simultaneously. We know that it is easy for the Commission to knock out any particular initiative for instance by declaring that the initiative goes beyond its powers. Simultaneous initiatives within member states, however, make this strategy of denial more difficult.

What is more, a referendum could include multiple choices and the voting system could be designed to take into account multiple preferences (there are different methods of doing this). The main point of an advisory referenda about the euro would be to politicize the prevailing institutional arrangements and power relations. Citizens could be asked for instance these three questions:

• Do you prefer your country to stay in the euro or leave it?
• Which one do you prefer: the current monetary union with budgetary discipline and no solidarity or a democratic economic and political union, involving elements of common fiscal policy and redistribution?
• If we had a democratic political union in Europe, involving elements of common fiscal policy and redistribution, would you prefer your country to stay in the euro or leave it?

Or they could be given ten votes and distribute them among the options in the order of their preference. Whatever the precise arrangement, the main aim of the referenda would be to politicize the EMU and create momentum for major changes. However, if the mandate given by the referendum is strong, it can also justify a well-planned and orderly exit from the euro. The possibility of exit must be genuine.

In one or more countries, the initiative could succeed in gaining majority in the parliament, also with the support of the nationalist-populist forces. The risk that this initiative would instigate aggressive nationalism is relatively small. The popularity of the nationalist-populist parties mainly depends on entirely different factors. For instance the Finns party has lost more than half of its support in 7-8 months simply by participating in a radically neoliberal pro-austerity government.

People should be given sufficient time to consider and debate alternatives, also to ensure genuine opportunities for enlightenment and learning. To repeat, the main purpose is to politicize the euro and austerity and to make room for European and global alternatives. However, if a withdrawal from the euro clearly proves to be the most popular option, democracy requires that the people’s will is respected. Nothing would be such a big blow to the planners of the euro project as the fact that a country could resign from it successfully. The best option for the democratic Left is, however, that the alternative of a democratic and solidaristic EU would win in most places.

Suppose that a series of referenda would succeed in politicizing the Union. What should happen next? Here I am in agreement with Varoufakis. The cumbersome and old-fashioned diplomatic method of inter-state negotiations should be replaced with something far more democratic. The distance from civic debates is way too long and any democratic accountability too indirect to make any clear difference in terms of legitimation.

This is why we need even more European citizens’ initiatives! The subject of the next initiative should be the call for a democratically elected constitutional assembly. Obviously this initiative would need the support of various social movements and progressive political parties in the EP, including the socialists, social democrats and greens.

Change does not happen overnight, but a dialectics of further crises and learning could speed up the process. The work of the constitutional assembly will take at least a couple of years. The end result should be approved by EU citizens. This is where the principle of double majority seems most apt: (i) a majority of voters in the EU as a whole, and (ii) a majority in the majority of member states as well.

One last point. The European project is not an end in itself. Most of the world’s economic problems and contradictions require global, not just European solutions. Because of the nature of international law, it is often easier to create new treaties and institutional arrangements than to transform existing systems. What is required is a coalition of the willing, consisting of states, movements and parties. When new European or global laws and institutions are created, the Left has to ensure that they are made easily transformable by democratic means.

Heikki Patomäki