Friday, May 20, 2016

The Economist changes its mind about referendums

One and a half years ago the magazine The Economist published an editorial with the title "Catalonia's future: let them vote." It argued that, although Catalan independence was a bad idea, it should be defeated in a referendum. This was ammunition not only for separatists, but also for many reasonably minded people who are against independence but for a variety of reasons believe that a referendum about this idea that they do not like would be a good thing. Now The Economist (the editorials and articles are not signed by any individual in this magazine) has changed its mind. In the issue just published it runs an editorial against the notion that referendums are in general a good idea, and it has a more specific piece explaining that the fashion of holding referendums in Europe is a bad idea. Perhaps it is because, being a British publication, they are experiencing what is the dangerous descent into a democracy of bad quality with the Brexit referendum. Both in the editorial and in the article, they regret that with the Scottish referendum the membership of the Scottish separatists, although they lost the referendum,  has quadrupled. They also repeat some well known arguments against referendums, such as the inability of this mechanism to consider trade-offs and therefore making it very likely that they will result into incompatible bundles of policies. "Referendum fever (...) makes it increasingly hard to agree on transnational policies. Treaties are generally signed by governments and then ratified by legislatures. Adding referendums to the mix hugely complicates matters. “It’s almost impossible now to see how 28 states would ratify an EU reform treaty,” says Stefan Lehne of Carnegie Europe, a think-tank. Minorities of voters in smaller countries may be able to stymie Europe-wide policies; just 32% of Dutch voters took part in the Ukraine referendum. This could cripple the European project. “Europe cannot exist as a union of referendums,” says Ivan Krastev, head of the Centre for Liberal Strategies, a Bulgarian think-tank."

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