The Future of the European Continent
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The Future of the European Continent

30 Mar 2016 - 14:58
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During the EUforum Ukraine-discussion the chief editor of the Clingendael Spectator Jan Rood announced the winner of the scenariocontest EUforum for youth. They were challenged to explore a view on the future for the European continent and the EU in a short essay, both after a yes-vote and after a no-vote during the Ukraine referendum on April 6th. The winning essay was written by John Jacobs, Masterstudent Social Geography at the Radboud University Nijmegen:

The Future of the European Continent: Referendums, Plebiscites, and the Thomas-Theorem

The European Project crumbles: the Brexit and Ukraine-European Union Association Agreement referendums alike are currently undermining the European order. While this contribution focusses on the possible security consequences of the EU-Ukraine referendum, the event itself should be considered in the greater scope of EU integration power struggle, as the European Union unintentionally appears to coerce opposition parties into utilising democratic tools for their anti-EU agendas.

Specific topic referendums can show general EU dissatisfaction.  As James Madison argues, this kind of direct democracy is the “tyranny of the majority”[1]. Engaging in conversation with EU citizens makes evident the difficulty that surrounds the referendums. Transient whims might heavily influence the decisions of referendum voters – subjects to propaganda, influential personalities, and extensive advertising campaigns, which might overwhelm a carefully considered opinion.

The April 6 referendum might arguably be called a plebiscite, referring to the practice of authoritarian states. Such plebiscites are organised for the “Bühne”[2],  as they rarely affect the decision -making process. Opposition reactions might be predicted, and one might even expect a so-called “vote of no confidence”. Should the Dutch government somehow be persuaded to cast a negative vote, they would have to face the twenty-seven other EU member states – all expecting the Netherlands to walk in line.

The EU-Ukraine referendum is, in fact, a plebiscite, and its outcome is unlikely to influence the voting process. A positive vote reinforces the already established policy, whereas a negative vote would not affect it. Voting, however, is not irrelevant, as the referendum is of relevance to the security of the European continent.


As James Madison argues, this kind of direct democracy is the “tyranny of the majority”


“If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.”[3] This quote, the Thomas-Theorem, explains why the aforementioned crumbling of the EU is of such importance to its safety. The present-day European order faces undermining on all sides: populist movements rallying ignorant civilians, opposition parties starting plebiscite-like referendum. While these may not affect policy directly – they will have consequences of effect. Should a referendum be successful, more might take place, allowing opposition party prosperity. They benefit from the decay of European Rule of Law, and their influence increases with each successful anti-EU referendum.

With Russia showing aggression – particularly in Ukraine – it is becoming increasingly relevant to question Europe’s safety. Mainly in other Balkan countries, there are debates regarding a diminishing feeling of security that also touch upon western populism and the current migrant crisis. Regardless of the shape these situations relating to security take, they are, as William and Dorothy Thomas claim, as real as their consequences.

A negative outcome in the referendums to come might define Europe as weak and without unity: an easy target for those who seek to overthrow European order – be it terrorist organisations such as Daesh or a powerful state such as Russia. Negative votes have real consequences on the national level as well as on the European. It might also set a fashion trend of plebiscites becoming increasingly more common, causing a snowball effect undermining democracy and rule of law.

A positive vote, on the other hand, defines the European Front as strong and united, a force to be reckoned with. Regardless of the outcome, plebiscites undermine democracy. They take away from the necessity of a referendum when one is truly needed. Europe should focus on the establishment of true democracy and real security, rather than continue to squabble over a plebiscite referendum, lest the possibility of a weakened European Order become real beyond its theoretical definitions and consequences.


[1] While Madison did not use the word ‘tyranny’ in his original letter to Thomas Jefferson in October 1788, the gist may be derived from the quote “In our Governments the real power lies in the majority of the Community, and the invasion of private rights is chiefly to be apprehended, not from acts of Government contrary to the sense of its constituents, but from acts in which the Government is the mere instrument of the major number of Constituents.”

[2] Bühne: ‘podium’ (Dutch, German), referring  to empty actions taken to appease or entertain the crowd.

[3] Situation interpretation determines the undertaking of action. Interpretation is not objective, as actions are affected by subjective perception of situations. Whether there is an objectively correct interpretation possible is not of importance for the purposes of guiding an individual’s behaviour. For further reading, see “The Thomas Theorem and the Matthew Effect”, Robert K. Merton. Social Forces, December 1995, 74 (2): 379-424.



John Jacobs
Masterstudent Sociale Geografie aan de Radboud Universiteit in Nijmegen