1989 Generation Initiative

On the 5th of December, the 1989 Generation Initiative held a roundtable at the London School of Economics, drawing together a mix of Masters students to discuss the outcome of the Italian Constitutional Referendum, considering in particular the likely implications for the the Italian banking system and the EU. Moreover, the broader topic of referenda and their value as tools of democratic participation was touched upon; following this, attendees were asked to issue general suggestions of possible alternative methods of citizen participation, and/or tools to make referenda more legitimate.

Please Note: The views expressed below represent those of the participants in attendance at the roundtable, not of the 1989 Generation Initiative as a whole, nor of the European Institute.

It was agreed that the Italian referendum was far from the binary populist vs establishment (or EU vs anti-EU) debate that it had been billed as. Many figures of the so-called establishment chose to back the NO vote, whilst the question posed had little to do with Europe. The 5-Star Movement’s backing of the NO campaign is not enough to render this a plebiscite on the euro, which polls in Italy suggest voters continue to overwhelmingly back. 60% of voters backed NO, the vast majority of which, including many Democrats would not vote M5S at a general election. However, we must not ignore the potential impact of the result upon the Italian banking system, with the imminent nationalisation, at the taxpayer’s expense, of Monte dei Paschi di Siena, and the implications this will have for larger lenders such as UniCredit. The full effects of the outcome upon the banking system remain to be seen. However, regardless of this, the banking crisis will continue to pose an existential threat to the euro, one which the new Italian Prime Minister and other Eurozone leaders must move quickly to address.

Referenda as tools of democratic participation

The value of referenda as tools of democratic participation was held up to scrutiny. Serious doubts were raised over the capacity of referenda to at once legitimate, inclusive and just. The EU Referendum and the Italian Constitutional Referendum have exposed flaws both in the design and use of referenda by politicians to achieve narrow political objectives. These flaws create a dangerous space which less savoury actors in society can readily exploit.

The first issue that arises is misinformation. A large proportion of voters have been misinformed over the consequences of their choice. Examples of this trend are in evidence across Europe, but perhaps best exemplified in the case of the EU Referendum, where prospective LEAVE voters were led to believe that Turkey would imminently join the EU, and that £350 million that would otherwise be contributed to the EU budget would be channelled back into the National Health Service. Moreover, little effort was made by a divided LEAVE campaign to develop and then present a roadmap for leaving the EU, should the campaign prove successful. Voters were voting on the basis of misinformation for something that was not yet defined.

Secondly there is the question of civic understanding amongst the wider population. Referenda of a technical nature, such as the Italian Constitutional Referendum, require a degree of technical knowledge by voters in order for them to make an informed choice. Needless to say, few in a society can fully understand the nature and implications of a constitutional amendment, which means the vote takes on a separate meaning. In Italy, this became a plebiscite on Matteo Renzi; in Britain an expression of satisfaction/dissatisfaction with the economic status quo.

Strengthening civic participation; altering the design of referenda

To address these issues, the roundtable provided two possible solutions: First, that referenda should be organised within a far stricter framework and second, that in the longer term, compulsory courses of civic education should be introduced before middle school level to enable a higher standard of involvement and critical thinking.

It was agreed that a far stricter framework for the conduct of referenda is required. Governments that call referenda should be held accountable to implement either outcome, whether it backed one or the other. Heads of State may reject the decision of a Prime Minister to resign in the case of the wrong outcome. In parallel, governments should present voters with a manifesto clearly outlining their plan in case of either outcome. This would help voters better understand what they are voting for, whilst fortifying political accountability. Moreover, a higher minimum threshold for participation might be imposed (generally 30%) with a greater majority needed for a major change to pass. For example, a proposal for constitutional change in Germany requires a 75% majority. Clear guidelines for the conduct of referenda and implementation of the results will help citizens make informed choices whilst preventing governments to interpret as they wish the popular vote.

Furthermore, the issue of political education for citizens was highlighted as crucial. For direct democracy to achieve its purpose of broad citizen participation, voters will require a minimum standard of civic education. This includes knowledge about national political systems but also EU institutions and decision-making. Citizens would thus be better placed to grapple with more complicated political issues, empowering them to make a more reasoned choice during a referendum.

This Roundtable is part of our wider current affairs series ‘Talking Europe’. You can download the full report from this Roundtable here.

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