Simon Hix: Referendums in a two-speed Europe (Part II)

Par Lise Herman and Valentin Kreilinger | 23 février 2011

Pour citer cet article : Lise Herman and Valentin Kreilinger, “Simon Hix: Referendums in a two-speed Europe (Part II)”, Nouvelle Europe [en ligne], Mercredi 23 février 2011,, consulté le 22 mars 2023

In the second part of this interview, Simon Hix, professor in the Department of Government at the London School of Economics and Political Science, puts into perspective the use and reach of referendums in member states. He also gives us some pronostics about the future of political Europe.

How salient will the issues have to be for a referendum to be held in general?

This is the other problem. I think, it’s very difficult. We are not really a referendum society and historically we have only had referendums on big constitutional questions: Should we have a Parliament in Scotland? Should we stay in the EU? Should we have a Mayor of London? Should we have a Welsh Assembly? We have not ever had referendums on policy issues, unlike Switzerland, unlike California, unlike Italy. And I think, most parliamentarians would really try and avoid such a situation, there is only a small minority that would like that sort of thing. Once you start having referendums on policy questions, where does it stop? And I don’t think any of those issues are really salient enough for there to be huge public demand for a referendum, I really cannot imagine massive public demand for moving from unanimity to QMV. I can, however, imagine public demand on a treaty like Lisbon, on Britain joining EMU [Economic and Monetary Union], on Britain joining Schengen.

What about a referendum under Article 48 (6) of the TEU in order to create a permanent crisis mechanism for the Eurozone, would this actually be covered by the bill? How does Britain react to two-speed Europe?

I think the government’s interpretation is that it’s not covered by the bill, because it’s not of constitutional significance for the UK. It’s a Eurozone issue. This is really interesting about this government, opposed to all previous governments: there has been a real shift – and it’s surprising the Liberals have gone along with it. Even when the Conservatives were in power at their most Eurosceptic and even when Labour was in power at its most Eurosceptic, there was always a strategic argument not be on the “second tier”.

Traditionally, we would rather have done everything we could to block the others going ahead without us, than have allowed for this two-speed Europe. Because if the other Member States go ahead without Britain, they will ultimately design rules in such a way that we don’t have any influence over them, and there will be negative consequences for the country. It is amazing to see this government almost positively welcomes the idea that there is a two-speed Europe. They would actually prefer it, they would actually say that they don’t care if the Eurozone goes ahead and sets up, a common fiscal policy, a common budgetary policy, coordination of macro-economic policies, coordination of pensions policies and labour markets and a movement towards perhaps a more genuine political integration. I actually think that, the Conservative Party, if given a choice, would like to be in the Single Market without being part of a lot of the more political aspects of the EU.

But the “Norway option” that a lot of these anti-Europeans talk about is not open to Britain. Norway’s membership in the EEA [European Economic Area] means that Norway get access to the single market, Norway gets free movement of persons, Norway doesn’t have to pay into the budget. But actually Norway does have to apply all the social standards, environmental standards and everything that goes with being part of the Single Market. In a sense Norway is like the Puerto Rico of the EU, like the Commonwealth of the EU. The British want to be either Norway or Switzerland. But the only reason the rest of the EU allows Norway and Switzerland to have these relationships is because they are rich countries with high labour market costs, high environment standards, high social standards. Britain wants to have this relationship in order to get rid of all this “Brussels red tape”, of all these standards that Europe has set up. And there is no way the rest of the EU is going to allow us to do that. This is the quid pro quo. You have the Single Market and the benefits of the Single Market, in return for social standards, environmental standards and everything else that goes along with it. And I think most British Conservatives or anti-Europeans don’t realise that.

When do you believe this shift towards a greater acceptance of a two-speed Europe happened?

I think it has been coming slowly, it has been starting with Schengen and with EMU. Labour made the decision that we weren't going to join the Euro, and with the area of security and justice, for a variety of reasons, we opted out of the Schengen agreements. The argument at the time was a practical one: we police people at our borders because we are an island, so we don’t need to have identity cards and these kinds of things. We want to have free movement of persons but we don’t want to get rid of border controls, because if we do we are going to have to introduce registrations with the police and identity cards and everything else that the continental societies have. But the consequences of this are that there is the Schengen area and that we’re outside of it, and there is the Euro area and we are outside of it. So we are in a sense on “tier two” already, and I think we are gradually waking up to what the consequences of that are.

In addition to the British EU Bill, there are other examples of increased domestic constraints all over the EU: Constitutional Courts ruled over the Lisbon Treaty, most prominently the German Bundesverfassungsgericht, and Ireland held two referendums. Is there a European trend to new domestic constraints?

There is a general trend that began in the 1990’s, so it’s not brand new. There is a danger in extrapolating too much from the last couple of years because it goes back to what happened with the ratification of Maastricht: There were two referendums in Denmark, a very close referendum in France, the Brunner judgement in Germany, the bill was defeated in the House of Commons and John Major had to attach a vote of confidence to the bill to get it passed.

In that period a lot of the national parliaments set up European Affairs committees to scrutinize what their national governments were doing. That was the beginning. Every treaty ratification since then has ratcheted it up, with more promises of referendums, more scrutiny by national parliaments, more conflict in the national parliaments for the treaty ratification process, and more constitutional court challenges. So it’s a continuum, it’s not a fundamental break. But after 1992 we've entered a new period, and the new period has meant higher domestic constraints for a lot of countries.

Increasing the EU to 27 Member States also increases the number of Member States with domestic constraints, as now we have the Czech Republic or Poland, and a whole range of new Member States who are not actually very pro-European. There are also growing domestic constraints in the old Member States whether it is Denmark, Sweden, Germany, the UK, Ireland or Holland. This means that in practical terms, there is going to be no fundamental institutional reform of the EU in the foreseeable future. We are stuck with what we’ve got, we are in equilibrium of the way the EU currently works.

And why would you say this shift happened?

I think this shift happened because of declining support for European integration. We saw a peak in support for European integration in 1990-1991, as there was huge enthusiasm across Europe for the Single Market program. After the fall of the Berlin wall, the economic crisis which hit Europe in the early 1990’s, in the wake of the Maastricht Treaty and the project for EMU, the public started to wake up to the fact that the EU was about more than economic and market integration, that it was political. And it then started not to trust governments so much. The whole justification of European integration for peace and against the communist bloc had also gone. In the middle of the 1990’s, we were in a new world, as a result of the end of the Cold War, as a result of German unification, as a result of the economic crisis, and as a result of the new instruments which were given to the EU – Justice and Home Affairs, Foreign Policy, EMU, environmental standards, and social standards. This whole new package made people start questioning their governments and wondering whether to trust them in making the good decisions when negotiating in Brussels.




In your opinion, could a referendum on an important issue like enlargement actually be won?

Evidence has shown that publics from the Member States that have held referendums are much more informed about Europe than those from the Member States who haven’t. In Ireland, in France, in Denmark, in Spain, in Holland, all the data on public understanding of the EU shows almost a step-change for these countries relative to all the others. And it has all to do with the fact these countries had a referendum, which meant that these people had to discuss European issues, people had to find out about Europe. And I’d rather have people informed and say no rather than not informed at all. They may make the wrong decisions now, but in a democracy the majority is allowed to make the wrong decisions, and hopefully in time with debate and discussion we make different decisions. In that sense, could a referendum on Turkish membership be won today? Right now probably not, but maybe in time, yes.

Since the failed referendums in France and the Netherlands in Spring 2005 we have seen a change from “Referendum Euphoria” to “Referendum Phobia”. The British Bill now seems to break the trend to avoid referendums. Will Britain automatically become a semi-detached member of the Union?

At this point it is really hard to know. I can imagine a scenario in which the EU bill turns out to have some teeth to it, and it does allow the Eurosceptics to put pressure on the government. A lot of it will depend on what happens in the next elections. If the Conservatives win the next elections with a majority and they don’t have to form a coalition government, then it is going to be very hard for that government not to hold a referendum on anything they’ve committed to in this bill.

If a Labour government gets elected, if a Conservative-Liberal coalition government gets elected, I can imagine that for various political reasons the bill could just become ignored. So it’s hard to know which of these options it’s going to be. What is sure is that the bill does create a weapon that anti-Europeans now can use.

Based on this assessment of the British role in Europe, what is your scenario for the future of the European Union?

Several different scenarios: One is that we are going to carry on muddling through with a return of intergovernmentalism, with big governments, typically the Franco-German alliance, trying to find a way to make EMU work. I’m sceptical of this new economic governance plan of the Franco-German deal, I don’t see many of the other Member States willing to go along with this, and I don’t think that it is going to work. In any case this sort of scenario implies a piece-meal reform of the way the EU works, no fundamental change to the EU budget, no fundamental change to the common agricultural policy (CAP), no fundamental change to the EU foreign policy, no fundamental change to the way EMU works, not a particularly democratic way of functioning, with the public carrying on not particularly liking the EU, and the EU gradually declining in its significance in the world. We can call this scenario “the EU as the super-size Switzerland” scenario. A nice place to live, a nice place to visit, but not particularly relevant. That’s the most likely scenario.

Then there are two alternative scenarios. One is that there is a real crisis. The economic crisis leads to the election of quite populist anti-European governments, elected with the mandate to re-negotiate the terms of their relationship with Europe. That may be facilitated by a second major economic crisis in Greece, with the other Member States in the Eurozone deciding to let Greece go. A crisis of this type is possible, with a low probability of 10-15%.

The other one is the optimistic scenario, where the EU member states gradually realise they have some fundamental policy questions they have to address, and they need to find some way to get the public to talk about them, and the public to mandate their governments to take certain decisions. There would then be an opening up of the EU to more democratic contestation, a battle for the Commission Presidency perhaps in 2014, a mandate for somebody who emerges to reform the budget, reform the Single Market, reform the CAP, and make some big strategic decisions. That could be a fundamental juncture in the way the EU works. Again here, there would be a low probability for this scenario to materialize.

Professor Hix, thank you very much for according this interview to Nouvelle Europe.


Simon Hix joined the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) in 1997 and was promoted to Professor in 2004. He took his undergraduate and masters degrees at the LSE and his PhD at the European University Institute, in Florence.

Professor Hix is Director of the Political Science and Political Economy Group at the LSE and is the co-editor of the journal European Union Politics. He has held visiting appointments at several top universities, including Stanford, Berkeley, UC San Diego, Sciences-Po in Paris, the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin, the College of Europe in Bruges, and Korean Institute for International Economic Policy in Seoul. He has extensive consultancy experience, including for the UK Cabinet Office and Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the European Parliament, the European Commission, the European Policy Centre, the Asian Development Bank, and has given evidence to the European affairs committees in the House of Lords and House of Commons.

He has written several books on EU and comparative politics, including “What’s Wrong With the European Union and How to Fix It” (Polity, 2008). The third edition of his textbook “The Political System of the European Union” is forthcoming this spring (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).


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