The Referendum Charade

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.

Referendums are an example of what is known as “direct democracy.” The voice of the people (or rather, the People) is not heard through their elected representatives in government, but directly through plebiscites. When Winston Churchill suggested in 1945 that the British people should vote in a referendum on whether to continue the wartime coalition government, the Labour leader Clement Attlee opposed it. He called referendums un-British and a “device of dictators and demagogues.”