Referendum snubs that the EU learned to manage


The history of the European Union is dotted with plebiscites where the initial outcome, like this weekend's Greek bailout vote, seemed catastrophic but was eventually resolved.

"The EU has trouble winning referendums," said Vivien Pertusot of the French Institute of International Relations, recalling a string of 'No votes over two decades that strained unity to breaking point.

There was Denmark's vote in June 1992 against the Maastricht Treaty; 'No votes by Ireland in 2001 against the Treaty of Nice and then in 2007 against the Lisbon Treaty; and above all the rejection in 2005 by the French and the Dutch of the European constitution.

Those votes led to periods of uncertainty, as in the current Greek crisis, with fears of an exit by Denmark from the then European Economic Community in 1992-1993 and frenzied speculation of a "plan B" for Ireland in case of a second 'No vote in 2002.

Brussels' spectacular failure to persuade Greece to back creditors' bailout terms is now causing concerns about whether it can convince Britons to stay in the EU in a referendum due in 2017.

This succession of referendums, including Sunday's vote in Greece in which the 'No votes won with 61.31 percent, are "a symptom of very deep mistrust between the European population and the European Union", said Hendrik Vos, a specialist in European affairs at Belgium's University of Ghent.

In 1992, 2001, 2005 and 2007, the questions related to founding texts which would lead to greater economic and political integration — and the governments in place defended the 'Yes' vote.

In the Greek scenario, radical leftist Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras vigorously campaigned for 'No to reforms demanded by his country's creditors in exchange for a new tranche of assistance to boost Greeces desperately empty coffers.

The Greek government website dedicated to the vote, hastily put together at the end of June, included a section entitled "They also did it" which lists a series of referendums held since 2000 in Europe — with those where 'No prevailed in prominent place.

Vos said referendums run "straight against what Europe is about" — a system where you have to deal collectively "with the concerns of the Dutch and the Germans, the priorities of the Greek and the Irish, the interests of Spain and Sweden".

"Doing politics in Europe is by definition looking for compromises," he said.

The results would have been "very different" if the same question in the Greek referendum was put to "the 19 countries using the euro," Vos observed.

In the past, European leaders managed to overcome the discord expressed in referendums with concessions.

"In all the referendum campaigns which were won by 'No, European leaders were careful to listen to the worries which were expressed, to provide some additional guarantees," said Frederic Allemand, coordinator of European Integration Studies at the Luxembourg-based institute CVCE.

"The Danes and the Irish got what they wanted," said Pertusot, referring to opt-outs Copenhagen still enjoys on issues such as joining the euro and domestic affairs.

Dublin won guarantees on respect for its military neutrality, its abortion ban and its low tax rate.

Two years after the 'No of 2005, a compromise was found to get rid of the European constitution and adopt a new treaty.

But the "major difference" today is that Greeces creditors are only prepared for "a small extra effort", while they must negotiate an aid package in exchange for difficult reforms, said Allemand.

For Pertusot, "the only way to change the balance, is to offer a concession, such as debt cancellation" — something wanted by Athens but until now a no-go for its creditors.

The outcome will be followed "very closely" at the other side of Europe, in Britain, where the Conservative premier David Cameron — opposite to Tsipras on the political spectrum — was re-elected in May promising to hold a referendum by 2017 on the country's EU membership.

"If the Greeks get concessions, the British will also want them," predicted Pertusot.