Referendums, Europe, and the ‘Forbidden Planet’

The British referendum sent shockwaves across Europe. Contrary to expectations, the vote to Leave defeated the vote to Remain by 52 to 48 percent. The turnout was high and the outcome was uniformly distributed. The only major exceptions were the votes in favor of remaining in the European Union (EU) cast in London, Northern Ireland, and Scotland. Without those areas of support, the vote to leave would have been even more decisive. The explanations are mostly negative. The English voted overwhelmingly against outside interference, elites, experts, and immigration. They also voted against ‘fear mongering’. What they voted for was a mixture of self-determination and something different. How they will use that autonomy remains to be seen. At the moment, the British ruling elite is too engaged in soul-searching and leadership contests to offer much in the way of vision.

The British situation is hardly unique. In fact, it is a frequent outcome when national politicians combine direct democracy and European integration. The reason is two-fold. First, European integration is a complicated matter of negotiations and trade-offs. As a result, the countries that participate need rules, information, coordination, and adjudication to facilitate their interaction with one-another. They also need a shared understanding of what is possible and what is not. The politics of the EU is very different from the politics within a given member state in this respect. Hence national leaders find it challenging to participate in this collective endeavor while it explaining their role to domestic audiences.

The official motivation for calling referendums is the second part of the explanation. Politicians ask their electorates to engage in direct democracy as an expression of confidence and not for specific guidance. Whatever the phrasing of the yes-no question, the goal is to see whether the government should stay the course or do something different. The meaning of ‘stay the course’ is as complex as the EU itself. More often than not, the ‘something different’ is even more unclear.

When everything works for the government, the outcome is self-evident. The French government asked for popular assent to the first major enlargement of the European Communities in 1972; because the people voted with the government, that referendum has been largely forgotten. The same is true of the many referendums that passed to give assent to various national accessions or European treaty revisions. The governments that called these referendums – sometimes by choice, and other times as a result of constitutional or other legal requirements – got their confirmation and so continued to do what they were doing.

The exceptions are those cases where government policy was controversial. The 1975 British referendum on membership and the 2015 Greek referendum on bailout conditionality are two illustrations. In both cases, the governments sought expressions of popular support in order to silence opposition both inside and outside the governing coalition. In both cases they succeeded in getting the vote they requested. The result was not an easier relationship between the national government and Europe, but it did reinforce the position of the sitting government. The French 1992 referendum on the Maastricht Treaty is an illustration of a different sort. The French government called the referendum on the assumption of an easy victory and to support its policies elsewhere; the closeness of the contest showed that affection for Europe is not an easy source of legitimacy for an unpopular government.

The decisive issue is the motivation of the electorate and not the elites. Governments want support for their policies, but there is no surprise in that. What is more interesting is why the people vote the way they do when given a binary, yes-or-no choice on such complicated political arrangements. Sometimes they deliver a cautious and considered collective judgement that falls in line with the ambitions of ruling politicians. That is certainly not outside the scope of possibility. Sometimes, however, the people respond to a referendum question in unpredictable ways. The people are no less cautious and considered in their judgment and yet the outcomes are very different from what the government hoped to achieve.

The first Norwegian referendum on participation in the European Communities in 1972 caused a political earthquake in that country. That experience is probably the closest parallel to what is happening in Britain today. By contrast, the Danish referendum twenty years later on the Maastricht Treaty and the Irish referendums on the Nice (2001) and Lisbon (2008) Treaties were less dramatic. The government failed to get what it wanted in terms of popular support for a specific policy outcome but it quickly found an alternative that was very close – which allowed them to call for a second referendum.

The French and Dutch referendums on the European Constitutional Treaty (2005) were harder to repeat but no more difficult to ignore. In those cases, the government could not find a way to go back to the electorate and so had to find a solution that would allow them to avoid popular confirmation. The Lisbon Treaty is essentially the European Constitutional Treaty rejected by the French and the Dutch but without the constitutional symbolism. It is easy to see this as a form of cynical misdirection. The government takes advantage of the lack of a clear alternative to repackage its preferences without really changing their content.

The Lisbon Treaty is not a unique illustration. The Danish people voted in a referendum held in 2000 not to join the euro and yet the Danish central bank follows a monetary policy that means the country participates in the single currency in all but name. The Dutch government faces a similar situation this year with a popular referendum on the trade relationship between the European Union and Ukraine. The group that called for this referendum sought to embarrass the government rather than confirm its general direction. The government’s response was to try and discourage turnout so that it would fall below the 30-percent threshold for recognition. When that strategy failed, the government sought to minimize the implications. Whether it will succeed in simply ignoring the referendum remains to be seen.

The best parallel for these surprising situations comes from a science fiction movie called ‘Forbidden Planet’. In that movie, the main characters face an ever more frightening array of monsters as they try to understand what is happening to the world around them. Moreover, the situation always gets worse from one encounter to the next: the more the main characters become afraid, the more terrible the monsters become as well. In the end, they discover that this dynamic is an essential part of the process. The planet contains a machine that makes thoughts into reality. The more they interact with this machine, the more it reinforces their darkest emotions.

Referendums work like that, particularly in the context of Europe. European integration is not only complex but also unfamiliar. As a result, it gives ample cause for popular concern. Referendums not only focus popular attention on what is scary about European integration but they also transform those fears into reality. The lack of well-defined or meaningful alternatives suddenly becomes clear. The Norwegians did not want to join the European Community and so now they have all of the obligations and few of the privileges of membership; the same is true for Denmark and the euro. The French and the Dutch sought to avoid a soulless, technocratic Europe and so the sacrificed both symbolism and vision of a European Constitution without altering the institutional environment. Now, the British have voted to exercise their independence although this means reducing both effective autonomy and influence.

With benefit of hindsight, the outcome of the British referendum should not have been surprising. It is also not counter-intuitive. Fear is a dangerous thing to introduce into referendum politics and complex processes like European integration do not lend themselves easily to yes-or-no types of popular affirmation. If there is culpability for the outcome, the whole of the British political class is to blame. But they can take solace from being in good company. Many other European leaders have made similar mistakes.

This piece was drafted in early July and published in the 1 September issue of the EastWest MagazineI am grateful to the editors for giving me permission to reproduce the manuscript version. For the edited version and to subscribe to the magazine, please go here.


Much of the argument in this essay is based on a book I wrote about The Politics of Economic and Monetary Union in 2002. In the penultimate chapter of that book, I did some statistical analysis of popular attitudes toward Europe. What I discovered was that people across the European Union (at the time) shared many of the same views about what the EU is doing and should be doing in policy terms. So long as the polling focused on a positive image of Europe, you could see little variation from one country to the next. Once you start asking about what people fear about European integration, you start to get dramatic differences. That is a problem that can only be addressed at the national level because any attempt by European institutions to address the concerns of a given member state only stokes the fears in all the rest.

I used the conclusion of the book to focus on what this meant for the politics of integration. The analogy between referendums and the Forbidden Planet comes in the last paragraph. I am reproducing that here for amusement:

The Irish referendum—like two of the three Danish referendums that preceded it—demonstrate the dangers of trying to make something out of nothing. Like the thought machine on the Forbidden Planet these referenda made the nightmares of European political elites a reality. The only thing that could make matters worse at this point, would be to reflect that same fearsome generative power through the electorate of a larger member state. The good news is that Europe’s heads of state and government seem to have learned this lesson from the 1992 referendum in France.

That turned out to be wishful thinking. The French held their referendum on the European Constitutional Treaty three years after this book was published and the British held their referendum on EU membership just over a decade after that. How European elites manage the consequences will define the politics of integration for the next generation and more.