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Using referendums in decision-making on the European Union: what is in it for Lithuania?

The ‘Democratic deficit’ of the decision-making processes in the European Union (EU) has been an ongoing debate among scholars, politicians and citizens for decades. Some prominent scholars argue that the EU is already as democratic as it could be, while others are not as optimistic and point to a lack of political fighting about issues that are of the main interest for the citizens of the European Union, causing a deficit of democracy in the institutions of the EU. The most illustrative evidence that the ‘democratic deficit’ is more than just a talking point for scholars might be the initiative to encourage the European citizens to speak up about the role they envision for the European Union under the platform of the Conference on the Future of Europe. Considering these developments, one can raise a question: why not opt for the most basic and democratic way to involve the citizens in the decision-making process – let them vote on the most important questions by referendum? Especially, as it is already practised in some of the Member States. To find out whether this would be viable and desirable, particularly for Lithuania, a broader evaluation must be done, regarding possible alternatives.

What might appear on the menu of the EU referendum policy?

Options regarding the EU-wide policy reforms to include referendums in the decision-making process as a tool to increase democratic legitimacy are numerous. Various choices in the referendum policy design should be made. It is important to specify the type of questions that can be resolved, whether referendums are mandatory to organize for the Member States, whether their results are binding and so on.

As there is no way to know what exact design would be considered viable to put forward by the main figures of the EU, this article considers three basic possible alternatives of the referendum policy. All of the considered alternatives share these features: 1) they are mandatory referendums; 2) organised throughout all of the EU Member States; 3) results are non-binding; 4) the right to initiate a referendum lies within the EU institutions. The only difference in the proposed alternatives is whether each Member State represents a separate electoral district (referenced further as Alternative One), all Member States are considered as one electoral district (Alternative Two) or the principle of double majority is applied (the referendum is accepted if a majority of citizens of the EU and of Member States vote in favour, Alternative Three). The fourth option for the policy would be maintaining the Status Quo.

Further explanation for the selection of these alternatives might be in order. Each of the proposed policy alternatives consists of five elements: 1) whether it is mandatory, 2) whether all Member States participate, 3) whether they are binding, 4) the right of the initiative and 5) how votes are counted for the referendum to be passed. Four of them remain constant in all alternatives with the sole difference being in the type of distribution into electoral districts. The obligatory nature of the referendums and their use throughout all of the Member States are quite self-explanatory considering that the alternatives discussed here are EU-wide. If the option of holding referendums were to be left up to the individual Member States or if Member States were to be allowed to opt-out of EU’s referendum policy altogether it would deny equal rights to all European citizens to participate in the decision-making. While it is not unusual for the European Union to grant exemptions for the Member States, it is not possible to make an educated assessment of whether it could be considered for referendum policy as this would undermine the democratic rights of some citizens.

Right of the initiative in both alternatives should be left to the main institutions of the EU (European Commission, European Council and European Parliament) as a safeguard because a wide agreement between these institutions minimizes the risk that referendums are used with populist agenda in mind. The non-binding nature of referendum results would also serve as a kind of safeguard, although it is highly unusual for parliaments (in the case of nation-states) to override the will of the people expressed in the referendum even if its results are considered non-binding (case in point: Brexit vote) as it might lead to a decline in trust of the democratic institutions. Thus, the only aspect that differs in the considered alternatives is how votes are counted for the referendum to be passed.  Selected options in this article entertain the difference between gaining the majority of the votes in every single Member State for the referendum to pass (Alternative One) or gaining the majority of all the votes cast in the European Union for the referendum to pass (Alternative Two) or the intermediate option of 1) gaining the majority of all the votes cast in all of the EU plus 2) gaining the majority of the votes in the majority of the Member States for the referendum to pass (Alternative Three).

The best option for Lithuania regarding referendum policy

Since the regaining of independence, there have been 14 referendums in Lithuania, only 4 of which have succeeded in passing. Three of them were voted on within the first two years of independence, and the fourth one – the referendum on membership in the EU – passed in 2004, which means that Lithuania has experienced only one successful referendum in the last 29 years. Three of ten that have been unsuccessful were rejected due to the insufficient amount of votes gained in favour, and the remaining failed due to insufficient participation.

The change in policy via referendum in Lithuania is very difficult to achieve due to the high barrier for passing. This fact alone puts the viability of Alternative One in doubt as it seems to indicate that Lithuania could block most of the EU-related decisions that are put to referendum due to inactive voting or the tendency of Lithuanian voters to stick with the status quo. Of course, it could be argued that the choice to reject change is still democratic, but to wield power over the lives of 450 million people by rejecting change with the veto power of a single country is not necessarily a positive thing. After the defeat of the EU Constitutional Treaty via referendums in the Netherlands and France in 2005, the general feeling towards the use of referendums in countries was that they only promoted disruption and deadlock of the integration process. Given the historic difficulty of ensuring successful referendums in Lithuania and painful past experiences of the EU when one (or a couple of) Member State could derail the whole process of policy change, it is then concluded that Alternative One might not be a viable option for empowering citizens as its costs seem to outweigh the possible benefits.

Alternative Two would seem to be a more attractive option for the European Union as a whole. First, the existence of a single constituent unit would take away the veto power out of the hands of any single Member State and thus would prevent the ‘tyranny of the minority’ regarding the decisions of the path forward for the EU. Secondly, EU-wide referendums would serve as an amplifier of the ‘citizen of Europe’ idea because it would give fully equal weight to each and every vote cast regardless of the country, which is not the case in the election of the European Parliament. While this is a seemingly appealing idea for the EU (criticisms of the use of referendums in general notwithstanding), from the perspective of Lithuanian policymakers this alternative should seem to be quite disastrous, considering a possible loss of considerable decision-making power. Citizens of Lithuania constitute just over 0.5 per cent of the population eligible to vote, so transferring some decision-making powers from the current EU institutions towards the citizens in the form of an EU-wide referendum with a single constituent unit would mean transferring more power than would be received back in the case of Lithuania. As of now citizens of smaller nations are overrepresented in the Council and the European Commission (as well as in the European Parliament on a smaller scale). It is then obvious that Alternative Two would not be viable for Lithuania at all as the ceding of decision-making powers means fewer instruments to influence decisions within the EU to reflect the interests of Lithuania.

While assessing the Alternative Three, it is worth considering whether two negatives indeed equal a positive as the third alternative could be regarded as a mixture of previously evaluated options. From the perspective of the EU, this might be the best of two worlds. This alternative prevents the use of veto from the minority of Member States while putting safeguards in place of the dominance of the voice of the most populous Member States and also gives importance to the equal voting power of every single citizen. The use of such a principle would not be entirely out of ordinary for the EU, as it is similar to the qualified majority voting in the Council. This option seems to be unattractive for the interests of Lithuania because it still reduces the strength of its voice the same way as Alternative Two, though not as severely. This alternative also is better than Alternative One as it lowers the risk of the political deadlock. Whether it is worth it to relinquish some of the powers of the state to empower the citizens of the EU is a normative question. This depends on the opinion of the decision-makers, onthe ability of referendums to contribute to the strengthening of the democratic backbone of the EU as well as the many other factors. If the choice has to be made, then the Alternative Three would seem to be the most viable option. However, considering the inevitable loss of some powers to defend its interests within the EU and ineffective use of referendums for decision-making in Lithuania, Status Quo appears to be the safest and the most desirable option regarding the referendum policy at this time.

This does not mean that the instalment of the EU-wide referendum policy should not be welcomed by Lithuanian policymakers. It only goes to show that the design of such referendums is of extreme importance. The potential of referendums to stall the process of the EU policy evolution as well as the potential loss of the decision-making powers, must be carefully considered by the Lithuanian policymakers if the introduction of the EU-wide referendums were to become the desired option within the European Union.

This commentary is a part of Jean Monnet Chair project “Teaching, researching and debating contemporary European issues” (TRENDS). The European Commission’s support for the production of this publication does not constitute an endorsement of the contents, which reflect the views only of the authors, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.