The referendum threat, the rationally ignorant voter, and the political culture of the EU
The chasm separating elite and popular opinion on the achievements and finality of European integration was never so visible as after the negative referendums on the Constitutional and the Lisbon Treaties. The public attitude prevailing in the past has been characterized as one of permissive consensus, meaning that the integration project was seemingly taken for granted by European publics as an accepted part of the political landscape. The current stage of the integration process is best understood as the end of permissive consensus, but EU leaders do not seem to be sufficiently aware of the far-reaching consequences entailed by this change in public attitude. One important reason for this inability, or unwillingness, to assess realistically the new situation is the peculiar political culture grown up in more than half a century of intense, if not always productive, integrationist efforts. A striking demonstration of the hold of this political culture on the minds of Euro-leaders is the view of popular referendums as an unconscionable risk for the integration process--the referendum roulette. One of the favourite arguments against ratification of European treaties by popular referendum is that voters cannot be expected to read and evaluate technically and legally complex texts running into hundreds of pages. It will be shown, however, that this argument is flawed in several respects; carried to its logical conclusion, it would lead to severe restrictions of the franchise even at the national level. The reasons of the current discontent are to be found in the fear of a EU without border and limits and in the loss of confidence among significant parts of the electorate in the EU’s ability to deal with everyday issues. The Union may be entering an age of diminished expectations: leaders realize that the current approach to European integration no longer delivers very much, but there is little demand for an alternative approach that might do better. Some form of differentiated integration may offer the only possibility of avoiding the dilemma of dissolution or irrelevance.
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