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The Referendum Charade

Referendums are all the rage in Europe, with British, Hungarian, and Dutch voters set to exercise "direct democracy" in the coming months. But while referendums are sometimes used in representative democracies, dictators have historically been much keener on them.

NEW YORK – Referendums are all the rage in Europe. In June, British voters will decide whether the United Kingdom should remain in the European Union. The Hungarian government has called for a referendum on accepting its quota of refugees set by the EU. Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, has already said that Hungary would resist letting them in. “All the terrorists are basically migrants,” he said. The referendum is likely to go his way.

Perhaps the oddest referendum will take place in April in the Netherlands, following a successful petition campaign. The question put to Dutch citizens will be whether the Netherlands should sign up to an association agreement between the EU and Ukraine. All other EU member countries have already agreed, but without the Dutch it cannot be ratified.

One might think that the details of trade agreements and tariff barriers with Ukraine would baffle most Dutch voters, and one might also wonder why they should care enough to hold a referendum. But referendums fit the populist mood that is sweeping many countries, from Donald Trump’s America to Orbán’s Hungary.

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