NEW YORK—“There is no Union!” according to Guy Verhofstadt. That is, the European Union—the 28-member bloc with the world’s second-largest economy—doesn’t exist. It isn’t a union, he said, but a “loose confederation of nation states based on the principle of unanimity,” a far-cry from the federal super-state that he would like to see. The implication? It’s misleading to talk about a union when the entity in question can’t make crucial decisions on migration, for instance.

Verhofstadt, a former prime minister of Belgium and leader of the liberal group in the European Parliament, made his startling denial of the EU’s existence at an NYU-hosted conference on “Referendums and Democratic Politics.” The MEP is famous (or infamous) for his passionate, almost theatrical speeches. He’s known for his ruthless if measured criticism of other politicians and his defense of the rule of law and European integration. So it was interesting to hear the next sentence out his mouth: “The countries who are choosing to leave are right—this Union isn’t working.”

Some variation on this theme—that politics as usual, the received order of things, isn’t working—dogged the conference. Attendees’ reflections on plebiscites and referenda from every part of the 20th century and in the US, Europe and Canada, cast doubt on a rosy view of direct democracy as a tidy means of handing the people the reins and settling issues for good. Instead, the mix of journalists, politicians, and academics who took the stage made one thing clear: Referenda are political tools, as transformative as they are dangerous, and just as likely to muddy an issue as they are to resolve it.

“Referenda are being increasingly used in part because politics are so discredited,” Ed Miliband said. “And yet my fear is that their very nature as a device won’t increase political trust but may well diminish it.”

Larry Wolff, the director of NYU’s Center for European and Mediterranean Studies, and NYU Provost Katherine Fleming conceived the conference as a response to a referendum widely seen (among its detractors) as a signal failure of politics as usual: the vote that’s leading Britain out of the European Union. The Brexit vote, only the most recent in a series of negative referenda on European integration, called into question everything about the EU—and about Britain itself. The EU’s de facto motto—Ever Closer Union—hardly seems self-evident anymore.

Together with NYU’s journalism school—which hosts a joint program in journalism and European studies—the Center put together a conference that’s just as relevant for Americans taking a sober look at this country’s politics as it is for the Europeans. But it was also a welcome reprieve from election coverage only days before November 8. As Kathering Fleming put it: “There is a certain self-soothing quality to this event, which is an American event held four days before our election where we get to focus on the toxicity and dysfunction of British politics.” And then to the two British MPs in the room: “We thank you for your service.”

Referenda have a long and not always comfortable history in Europe. Woodrow Wilson encouraged plebiscites in certain awkward regions—Silesia, Carinthia, East Prussia and Schleswig—that were claimed by multiple nation-states after the First World War. Trouble was, the people living in these regions didn’t always go along with the opinion of the American experts Wilson had tasked with determining the “nationality” of these regions, Wolff said. Early 20th century Europeans didn’t necessarily feel that they were strictly German or Polish, for instance. And in Guy Verhofstadt’s view, these plebiscites sometimes created conflict where there was none: “Families living together in the same street became enemies of each other because one chose to become German and the other chose to become a Pole.”

The Wilsonian plebiscites demanded an answer to the question: Under what conditions can a genuine referendum take place? Could you hold a referendum among presumed Poles if the government of Prussia was still in control of the territory? What does it mean that you’re asking that question in the first place? How do we know they’re Poles? Because the American experts said so? The ostensible reason for holding plebiscites in the first place was to avert further conflict—but while the Allies dithered about the plebiscite in Silesia, the territory descended into civil war. Even in further flung cases like Kashmir and the Western Sahara, plebiscites have become a resolution “anxiously sought and ever deferred,” Wolff said.

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Ed Miliband, former leader of the Labour party and current MP, addresses the audience at the NYU conference on referendums and democracy. / NYU Photo Bureau: Hollenshead

Independence votes are subject to similar problems. Jane Jenson, a professor at the University of Montréal, described the politics of Quebecois independence in terms that echoed the concerns of previous speakers that referenda rarely put  issues to bed as expected. Quebec has twice voted on independence, and both times the voters have elected to remain in Canada—but by a margin of less than one percent in the second vote. Clearly, a margin like that doesn’t signify that a question has been decided. And indeed as Jenson said, “the referendum on Quebec sovereignty is a constant in the politics of Quebec.” Furthermore an ongoing dispute further complicates the notion of victory in such a vote: Is a simple majority enough to send Quebec off on its own? If a simple majority won’t close down debate after a no vote, can it be expected to do so after a yes?

Europe has its own gaggle of separatist and independence movements, which were represented at the conference by speakers on Scottish and Catalonian independence. Joan-Pau Rubiés, professor at the Catalan Institute for Research and Advanced Studies in Barcelona, made the sanguine point that independence movements cannot be resolved by an appeal to the national constitution, as Spain has attempted vis-à-vis Catalonia. Independence movements begin with a distrust of the constitutional order itself; the constitution is only a good tool when there is an “underlying consensus” behind it.

Guy Verhofstadt wasn’t the only celebrity there. Ed Miliband, former leader of the UK’s Labour Party and now a member of parliament, appeared with a counterpart from the other side of the Westminster Parliament, Ed Vaizey. But neither MP, Conservative or Labour, could find much good to say about Brexit. No surprise from Ed Miliband, who expressed skepticism about referenda in general. “Referenda are being increasingly used in part because politics are so discredited,” he said. “And yet my fear is that their very nature as a device won’t increase political trust but may well diminish it.”

But Brexit got little love from Ed Vaizey either, who described himself as a conservative MP with “surprising liberal streaks.” But interesting to hear a member of David Cameron’s party, though upset at the outcome of the referendum, defend the decision to call one.

“People say this was just politics to hold the Conservative party together,” he said. “Well if you have an issue that makes governing difficult … then to release that pressure and have the referendum is a serious option and shouldn’t be dismissed.” And then minutes later: “God help us. We cannot have another referendum!” Pause. “On anything. Please.”

Photo: Guy Verhofstadt addresses the conference © NYU Photo Bureau: Hollenshead

Posted by Kyle Walker

Kyle is a physicist-turned-scribbler educated in Tulsa, Vienna and New York. Raised in the desert wilds of New Mexico, Kyle is not a cowboy—though he has been on a horse two or three times. Kyle’s writing has appeared in the Bigheart Times, This Land Magazine, and Inverse.com. Kyle is the founding editor of the New York Transatlantic

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