Why Referenda Usually Just Don’t Cut It

Now the second and final day of Poland’s EU accession referendum is underway. Radio reports indicate that participation through Saturday ran rather short of the 25% one would hope for, at least on an accountant’s straight-line basis, to assure that final participation reaches at least 50% and therefore validity for the whole exercise. But after all, this is not some financial exercise . . .

The main newspapers continue to do their part to remind citizens of the importance of the occasion. “Yes or No for the European Union,” reads the headline of the weekend edition of Rzeczpospolita: “Poland’s fate is to be decided.” This newspaper even provides a helpful diagram – on the front page, above-the-fold – about how to mark your vote correctly: two lines crossed is what election officials are looking for as they count the ballots, while marking some sort of “v” in the box (like the “check-mark” I myself would likely put down in my ignorance) apparently runs the risk of leaving your vote uncounted. Here in Wroclaw, the prominent local offices of Poland’s best-selling paper, Gazeta Wyborcza, are draped with a huge vertical banner reminding citizens of what already has been accomplished, in the form of a gigantic reproduction of the paper’s front page of last 14-15 September, when the EU’s Copenhagen summit officially approved accession for Poland and nine other candidate states. In the headline there is Unia Nasza – “Our Union” – depicted in the distinctive red lettering more famous for its use in forming the word Solidarnosc, ever since that organization emerged from the Gdansk Lenin Shipyard strike of August, 1980, to challenge the authority of Poland’s Communist rulers. Below this, the front page is completely filled out with an article by long-time dissident (and Gazeta Wyborcza president) Adam Michnik entitled Spelnilo sie nam marzenie – “Our dream has come true.” The implied follow-up message to Wroclaw’s electorate, and to the rest of Poland: Don’t blow it.

“So you’re against Poland’s membership in the EU, then?” – e-mail feedback along lines such as that, in reaction to my “on-the-scene” report from here (Wroclaw, Poland) of Friday (found here), makes me think there might have been a small misunderstanding. I certainly grant that EU accession is probably the best current option for Poland (although I explore yet another later in this entry). In view of the country’s annihilation at the end of the 18th century, it’s existence for the century after that as little more than an idea, a language, a culture, and then after World War II its four decades of forced estrangement from the common (Western) European culture to which it rightly belongs, entry into the European Union truly represents Poland’s attainment of her long-denied destiny.

(Lately I have gotten well up-to-speed on these issues by reading Norman Davies’ excellent book Heart of Europe: The Past in Poland’s Present. Davies is probably the most prominent academic expert – at least writing in English – on Poland and her history, and this book is a thorough and serious treatment for anyone interested in that subject. Among other sources, you can buy it here from Amazon.com. I offer this link for readers’ convenience; I benefit in no way from any resulting purchases.)

That said, it’s just that I think I also have a point when I hear echoes of the old Communist propaganda campaigns in the present government-sponsored Tak dla Polski! (“Yes for Poland!”) campaign. (The government wasn’t interested in assisting, even just financially, anyone with a “No!” message – not that I was aware of. The Czech government is similarly asymmetrical in its campaign heading into next weekend’s referendum there, and that one-sidedness has apparently already drawn some criticism. Naturally, EuroSavant will soon be focusing its attention on this upcoming event.) Yes, there were items such as that 65-page booklet which could give the impression that the government was willing to raise and discuss the substantive issues for Poland having to do with EU membership. But my previous weblog post mentioned one example of how such discussion is conducted in that booklet rather misleadingly. In any case, clearly by far the most “information” the Polish people received about EU accession was in the form of the slogans and pretty faces of the billboards and 15-second TV spots.

My view that EU accession is serious enough to warrant rather more serious discussion about its implications is not unique. Indeed, in the Czech Republic it is the stance taken by the President himself, Václav Klaus, and his right-wing political party, the ODS. (You can read a Prague Post report about this phenomenon here.) Klaus has made it clear that he finds the “Yes” vote campaign of his own government appallingly superficial, more likely to keep Czech voters away from the polls than anything else, and some ODS members have even come out against Czech EU accession, most notably Ivan Langer, deputy speaker of the Chamber of Deputies, or Czech lower house. Klaus himself has never kept his mixed feelings about the EU a secret, and they long-ago earned for him the label “Eurosceptic.” But in my view he is the one who raises the important questions that need to be raised; that he is tarred as some sort of old curmudgeon, spoil-sport Eurosceptic has more to do with the fact that he is one of the rare ones unwilling to go along with the tidal wave of opinion, of supposition, in favor of the EU that was the target of my weblog post on Friday – “Of course we all want into the EU, there’s really nothing to think about or discuss on the subject, and besides, just look at all the ‘beautiful people’ on the billboards and on TV who want in, and as soon as possible.”

I guess it’s that, deep down, I’m deluded about the true purpose of national plebiscites – as I suppose Václav Klaus is as well(?). In my naïveté, I thought that their function was to lay an important issue before a country’s people, for decision via a process in which every citizen gets one vote and the majority decides, but only after considered thought and debate. Instead, I’m coming to realize that they are held to make very explicit a political decision – or an alleged political decision – which the country has in effect already made. Their importance, then, is hardly in any debate or reflection on the issue at hand that may occur, but rather in the fact of the final result, which can then be used to good effect in the future by the referendum’s sponsor: “Don’t give us any complaints about the withering of your family farm sector,” the EU Commission may very well lecture the Polish people in the near future, “you knew what you were getting into and you voted ‘Yes’ in your referendum.” Or “Let’s hear no more talk about taking Britain out of the EU,” the British government of the day can say. “You subjects of Her Majesty had the chance to vote for such a thing in the 1975 referendum, but you rejected it.” Or “I don’t want to hear any more complaints about my presidential style,” says Belorussian president Aleksandr Lukashenko dismissively. “The vast majority of you voted to approve my greatly-expanded presidential powers in the 24 November 1996 referendum.” (For those of you who don’t know: Lukashenko is now in effect the dictator of Belarus, the last dictatorship remaining on the European continent, a place where the president decrees by how many percentage points each measure of production will rise each year while real economic performance stagnates sharply, where people who dare to oppose the governing regime just disappear and are never heard from again.)

Maybe there is all-too-often a serious imbalance between, on the one hand, the grave, often binding, and perpetual nature of decisions that referenda deliver and, on the other, the “deliberation” over the issue at hand on the part of the people asked to vote in it. Maybe referenda are one of those things that seem logical, even the natural thing to do at a particular point in a political process, but which in reality are quite the wrong choice because of the great danger of manipulation of public opinion. There are no national referenda in the United States (as we know, there isn’t even a direct vote by all eligible voters to choose the American president) because the Founding Fathers, always fearful of the power of the uncomprehending mob, set things up that way. (True, a few American states provide for referenda; California, in particular, holds them quite often.) There are also no national referenda in Germany, a nation also rather too familiar, from recent experience, with the powers of propaganda available to the ruthless strongman.

Well, what about Poland’s alternatives in this referendum? What about that “other option” that I hinted at above? Polish rejection of EU accession, as remotely unlikely as it seems, would not in fact mean some sort of political and economic isolation on the edge of the European polity. Recall that there still do exist a couple of European countries which have faced the choice of entry into the EU squarely, have rejected it, and yet nonetheless are still doing pretty well for themselves. Here, Norway and Switzerland come to mind, but rather than deal in specific countries it’s probably better to address the organization which binds them together and, de facto, embodies this “not-ready-for-the-EU, if-ever” option. That’s the European Free Trade Association, or EFTA. The UK, Ireland, and Denmark were also all members of EFTA when it was established in 1960, mainly because it was established in reaction to the European Economic Community (precursor to today’s EU, established by the Treaty of Rome, March, 1957), as an organization of European states which would mainly just lower or eliminate tariff barriers between its member countries, and that would be about it. The EEC, in contrast, set for itself the task of completely eliminating tariffs between its member-states by 1967 (in fact, it accomplished this earlier than that), but it also carried with it much more baggage, such as an expensive and complicated program to regulate agriculture to ensure “European food sufficiency” and the survival of the family farm (this is the Common Agriculture Policy, or CAP, still a very big problem for the EU today even while “food sufficiency” is by no means a problem at all), and a whole bunch of other things – although, at that time, nothing in the realm of foreign, security, or even monetary/currency policy.

Although a founding member of EFTA, Great Britain eventually joined the EEC (after failing in 1963, blocked by Charles de Gaulle’s veto), as eventually did Denmark, Portugal, and Sweden. But Norway and Switzerland (and Iceland, and Liechtenstein) remain in the organization. What’s more, three of them (not including Switzerland) have an arrangement with the EU called the EEA – the European Economic Area – which enables these three to participate fully in the EU’s “Single Market” – freedom of movement for goods (not including fishing and agriculture), of persons (i.e. labor looking for work), of services, and of capital. Essentially, they get the benefits, but have only a very limited say in how the rules are derived, since after all they are not EU members, although on the other hand they are not “trapped” in this arrangement with the EU – EU law does not take precedence over their domestic law, for example – so that if they felt too much displeasure at changes made to the “Single Market” regime, they could just withdraw from the arrangement.

There you have it: an alternative to EU accession for Poland. And not very much discussed as such by the Polish electorate, I dare say. But, again, history does seem to point to full involvement in Europe as the best solution for Poland: with the Germans, in particular, much better to sit at the same negotiating table with them, at almost-equal strength and with the very real possibility of finding other allies, than to be in an all-or-nothing, all-the-way-in or all-the-way-out regime under EFTA.

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