Saturday, November 21, 2015

What is Wrong with Referendums? A Reply to Geert Wilders

Recently (2015-11-19) Geert Wilders published an article in New York Times arguing that Europe should hold national referendums on immigration policy. But referendums are not necessarily fair, nor are they the ultimate form of democracy. Referendums have two problems: first, only insiders can vote, even on questions that largely concerns outsiders. Second, everyone has a single vote of equal weight, even in case where the importance of the outcome differs widely.

Who Can Vote?

Current "universal" voting is limited to "insiders", those who are either confined to a certain territory, or possess a certain legal status. In case of national referendums, these are typically citizens of the country; in local referendums these may be residents of a city. Outsiders cannot participate, even when voting over issues that have major consequences for them. This violates a central pillar of democracy, the ability to influence decisions that affect you.

A referendum over immigration policies is just such an example. Unless potential immigrants also participate, we cannot talk about universal democratic decision. Similar issues arise when neighborhood residents vote for restrictive zoning laws. The potential "immigrants" to the neighborhood who are adversely affected cannot participate because they are not residents. The Greek referendum of 2015 shared similar traits: only Greek citizens were voting over a decision that involved most of the EU.

Greek 2015 referendum ballot
Greek 2015 referendum ballot. The referendum had several problems, only Greek citizens voting over a pan-European decision was perhaps it's most serious flaw.

How Big Is the Vote?

Another problem with referendums is the "size" of vote. Traditionally, everyone has a single vote. This is true even if different people have very different stakes in the question. In this way the majority can always outvote a minority. For instance, in many places the majority may outlaw homosexuality. The Swiss minaret law is an outcome of a referendum that was flawed in this way. I don't know how many Muslims and non-Muslims actually care about minarets, but I can imagine it is a far less important issue for non-Muslims. But they could easily muster a majority. As an extreme example, imagine that Hitler put Nuremberg Laws, the Nazi laws that robbed Jews of their rights, on a national referendum. Would we consider the outcome democratic? Analogously, potential migrants may outvote the whole EU if given an equal weight.


Unfortunately, these two problems cannot easily be corrected. Although it is not fair to exclude outsiders from decision–making, and give equal say for those with unequal stakes, we cannot calculate the fair vote size. Referendum is justified when the electorate has roughly equal stakes and outsiders are little affected. If this is not the case, one should not call for a referendum.

Instead, we may strive toward inclusive representative bodies that also involve outsiders. In case of the current refugee crisis it should include representatives from both EU, and refugee origin and transition countries. Such conferences, potentially meeting regularly, would ensure that insiders have more rights but outsiders will also have a say.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Britain in EU: More Powers to National Parliaments?

EU: More Power to National Parliaments Is not Always Democracy

More power to national parliaments is a democracy–enhancing move only if the national decision-making occurs in areas that have little impact on the others. If the opposite is true, it diminishes the control we have over the important decisions.


David Cameroon has announced his requests to the EU. One of them is a larger role for national parliaments in shaping EU regulations. Although national parliaments may be the most democratic institutions we have, the areas where such a "repatriation of powers" occurs must be chosen carefully. Otherwise it may weaken the democracy instead. There are two main reasons.

David Cameroon and EU
Just a common market—or an "ever closer union"?


First, and most importantly, only some decisions can be made by national parliaments. Many decisions can not, such as international treaties, trade agreements and international law. Almost by definition this type of legislation is not made by individual states. Analogously, parliaments do not vote on what the other countries do, be it introduction of incompatible regulations, or conducting irresponsible fiscal policy in the hope that we will bail them out later. Neither have we much room to vote about technical standards, such as Apple's new operating system or airport security procedures.

A number of major problems EU currently faces cannot be solved at national level. For instance, the refugee inflow must either be received, or stopped, at the EU border. The current country-based decision making essentially allows Hungarian parliament to decide over number of refugees in Serbia and Croatia, and, if German "national parliament" decides to close it's borders, it has severe impact on Greece and Italy. Analogously, the "single market", one of the pillars of EU, is a form of extended free-trade agreement, a large number of common standards for product labeling, food safety, and labor treatment. By definition, agreement is something we cannot do alone.

More powerful national parliaments in this type of decisions will weaken EU without strengthening the member–states. We will notice more small inconveniences, such that you cannot use certain mobile services in another EU country, or your business has to hassle with incompatible regulations across the border. Negotiations among 28 sovereign states are far more slow and costly than central decisionmaking, and there is little incentive to overcome even small special interests in the name of a common good. National politicians are elected to stand for "national interests", and all 28 national interests are seldom aligned with the common one. The underlying problem is interdependency, our decisions may influence others even if the others do not belong to our "nation". Such decisions should be done by inclusive higher level bodies, such as European Parliament.

Enfranchisement of EU Migrants

The other, and currently less important reason, is enfranchisement of EU migrants. This is a large group of people who cannot vote in national elections but is subject to the corresponding national legislation. This is simply not fair. I think the first-best solution would be to give EU migrants voting rights rather soon after moving to another country (say, in 2 years). But until it happens, decision–making by EU institutions offers this group more say about their lives.


Finally, even EU is too small for many important decisions. Many contemporary problems, such as global trade agreements, climate change, or the puzzle of Middle–East, cannot be solved at EU level either. We need global governance more than ever before. How to achieve this in a democratic way is one of the big challenges of our time.