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If there’s a continent that epitomises repeat referenda, it has to be Europe. Indeed, history seems to repeat itself often across Europe, and the advent of the European Union has spurred many such second-guesses of the initial public sentiment. More than that, this phenomenon has a history, as European nations repeatedly went back to the voting booth in order to cement public opinion over the last few centuries, thinks Shannon Berkley.

Merriam-Webster describes a plebiscite as “a vote by which the people of an entire country or district express an opinion for or against a proposal, especially on a choice of government or ruler.” Defined thus, it seems to be the final tally, a majority vote for or against, and thus truly indicative of a nation’s wishes. In repeated recent blasts from the past, European nations have been back and forth to the polls on the same issue, giving rise to a persistent sentiment that there is the decided possibility of engineering different results the second time round. The wholesale plebiscite model looks ideal, yet doesn’t account for spurious marketing and manipulation between ballot results on the same issue. Indeed, the European electorate has seldom gone to the polls on its own insistence, on the same issue. Rather, it is the government of the hour that pushes a second vote onto the citizenry in EU member states.

Is taking a second crack at the same vote mostly wily social engineering? Since the earliest days of the Maastricht Treaty, this has been the allegation from many quarters, and looking at the slow onward roll of the EU, it seems at least possible that second referenda often mask private interests, completely devoid of the feel-good of a national vote. Although to some, a sort of pseudo-scientific observation, correlations and comparative outcomes that might paint trends of difference between first-round vote results and the second referendum, when it happens, are thin on the ground. What can be safely stated, however, is that whether or not there is dark engineering afoot in second referenda, a second referendum causes a nation’s citizens to be far more speculative the second time around. Many see this as sufficient corruption of democratic principles, although at least as many remain convinced that it’s rather an insistence on pure democracy. 

In a second referendum, voters become open to manipulation by prominent characters, and results are often the opposite of what was previously concluded. Moreover, implicit in a second referendum is not the importance of the citizen’s vote, as so often implied by politicians, but rather: “you got it wrong the first time around.” Indeed, many view a second referendum on the same issue not as an exercise in democracy, but rather a crusade against it, if only based on the fact that second referenda seem to switch a nation’s direction at least as often as it solidifies it. 


Widely known as one of the more robustly democratic EU member states, even the French have accommodated repeat referenda in the name of political participation. The overwhelming solidifying of the vote around the issue of Empire in 1852 via a second referendum seems almost quaint now. Most modern repeat votes in France have been prompted by Brussels’ dissatisfaction, rather than national cohesion. On a continent that twice last century nearly tore itself apart in gruesome wars, continental cohesion also cannot simply be spurned as a political ploy. That said, it would appear that in recent decades, second referenda in France have more often led to a change in direction, rather than a confirmation of a national ethos.


Another classic case of what appears to be pressure on voters, rather than a preservation of their democratic rights, occurred in Ireland in 2002. An initial 2001 referendum had rejected the Treaty of Nice, an essential component of European unification. Possibly most open to allegations of engineering, as the initial rejection passed on a thin margin, it was another moment when an EU member state was forced to re-poll the citizenry in order to ratify what was considered undesirable by government the first time around. Again an issue of European cohesion, and again the spectre of centralised power far away, the Irish plebiscite remains less cohesive than argumentative. This is fuelling suspicions that the second referendum was not an expression of an enlightened Ireland, but rather the result of remote meddling by Brussels. Ireland has not only voted twice on the Treaty of Nice, but also on the Lisbon Treaty, both fundamental underpinnings of European union.


The Netherlands, too, has contributed to the very European phenomenon of second referenda. A somewhat different portrait, The Netherlands opted to continue its membership of the then European Communities in 1975. Although not a second push for different results, in 2016 local voters did opt out of the EU, with a 51.9% majority. The Netherlands has remained a member state, but it is widely anticipated that with such a narrow margin, a second or many referenda will be foisted on the public, in order to smooth over any bumps on the road to final, total unification. Fear-mongering from the “Yes!” campaign in The Netherlands at the time mooted the terrible prospect of a continent at war, something many pundits considered an unusual low at the time, even for politics.


Germany’s ability to be boisterous on unification issues is still muted. To whatever extent unification is a solution or attempt to maintain cohesion and good neighbourliness among EU states, Germany has the least room to move. That said, Germany is at the forefront of agitators extolling Britain to “think again” about Brexit. Perhaps also most justified in its plea for unity, the country does seem to be pushing the EU’s agenda, overriding real consideration of every nation state’s right to autonomy. 

German Chancellor Merkel has now also initiated the formation of an EU army, something vile to many who see unification as a direct assassination of their national civil liberties. Merkel makes good arguments around a unified currency and equality in its use and a homogenised application of the law, as well as the basic rights of every European citizen being equal. Others, however, point out that in signing away nationally enshrined rights to a remote and unelected power in Brussels, Germany is advocating (perhaps with the best of intentions) something that will lead to the exact opposite of the egalitarian and free Europe that Merkel imagines.


With some member states not even given the chance to vote, and others compelled to do it all over again, the looming Brexit referendum is a fraught one for the UK. Prime Minister Theresa May has been gritting her teeth for months now, as her citizens opted out, while she is seen as a silently acquiescent Remainer, compelled against her judgement to exit the EU. That said, British citizens do appear to have solidified into a majority exit vote, but it remains to be seen what happens at the polls the second time around.

The EU now has its own legal personality, just like a corporation, and governs by majority rule via a system of Qualified Majority Voting. Plans for the EU in 2020 and beyond include revoking member state rights to veto, and insisting on adoption of the Euro currency, after the Lisbon Treaty comes into full force in 2021. Indeed, the Lisbon Treaty’s initial ratification was when the EU officially became a dictatorship, one with power over its member states. That might sound too dramatic, but it’s little more than a statement of the facts. Merkel’s army and unified money are emblematic of things to come, and any overarching military or policy formulation will come at the expense of many individual member states’ own laws. 

In Britain, the very notion of a second referendum after so many EU member states were forced to vote, may indeed be indicative of a pattern of political subversion. Now that we have a history, a body of evidence stretching back decades around the issue of union, it becomes easier to see the nature of the driving force behind it, apart from the statements politicians make. Indeed, Brussels today more frequently overrides the sovereignty, individual liberty and will of EU member states with a growing confidence. For many Britons, this is not a great sign of things to come.

The pressure on Britain to hold a second referendum is now typical of a trend that sees member states that don’t toe Brussels’ line, being “forced” to vote again, completely undermining their democracy. Second referenda have a dark history in banana republics and other sad moments across the globe. Despots, dictators and tyrants slowly coerce the electorate into an acceptance by ballot, persisting until they glean the desired results. As a global phenomenon, it’s a very slippery slope, and the current repeated voting on the issue of union is sending the wrong message to tyrannical regimes around the world, who may be emboldened to similarly or more brazenly crush the liberties of their citizens. Second referenda beg the question: What comes next- best out of three?   EG


Plebiscites and Political Subversion? A Historical Analysis 

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