Two leading scholars, Wallace and Smith, once described the European Union as an "enlightened administration on behalf of uninformed publics, in cooperation with affected interests and subject to the approval of national governments." The EU legitimised its policies through system-efficiency and not citizens’ participation. Nation states were clearly unable to solve certain problems on their own and therefore an effective European policy could count on what Eurocrats used to call a "permissive public consensus."
This common "democratic" wisdom does not hold true any longer. Most citizens no longer trust the EU to act on their behalf in a discretionary manner. The EU can no longer claim to be an effective actor coping with migration flows, financial bubbles and terrorist plots. Europe is desperately searching for new ways of legitimising its policies and of connecting to its citizens.
This explains the rising popularity of Europe-related referenda beyond Denmark and Ireland, where referenda are not optional, but required by law in certain cases.
Several months ago we had a referendum asking Greek citizens to support a deal negotiated by their government with European creditors. In April a referendum will ask Dutch citizens whether they approve the Association Agreement between the EU and Ukraine. In June a referendum will ask British citizens whether they want to stay or leave the EU. A referendum will also be held in Hungary on whether to accept mandatory EU quotas for relocating migrants.
In all these cases only a fraction of the European electorate will be able to cast a vote on matters concerning Europe as a whole. In all these cases citizens will be confronted with a complicated European question reduced to a simplistic choice of YES or NO. In all these cases the winning majority will not only triumph over the losing minority in a particular referendum; this winning and often narrow majority within a single country will be able to damage a policy enjoying an overwhelming support in numerous other European countries.
Such a process of decision-making in Europe is not intelligent, fair and effective. It can hardly be called democratic despite all the symbolism of casting votes and impression of empowering the people. A famous Italian scholar, Giovanni Sartori called a referendum a "majority tyranny" based on "an outright zero-sum mechanism of decision making: the winning majority takes it all, the minority loses all." Yet he was writing about a referendum concerning state’s domestic matters. A national referendum concerning European matters can well be called a "minority tyranny" rewarding parochial demagogues.
All the referenda mentioned above have been orchestrated by a small group of national politicians to use a popular vote for their partisan political aims. They will not solve any European problem. They will not make people trust Europe more. They will not bridge disagreements between individual states and their peoples. A referendum by its nature creates a conflict-maximising mechanism that makes it difficult to establish policies in a consensual, bi-partisan, let alone transnational manner. The simplistic black and white dichotomy imposed by a referendum is favouring populist politicians offering easy solutions for complicated problems.