Referendums on Integration

When voters get to decide, do they support economic integration? The recent Dutch rejection of an EU treaty suggests maybe not.

Dan Bilefsky reports that this follows on a long line of voter skepticism:

In past decades, when faced with plebiscites on whether to embrace further European integration, voters across the Continent had a habit of slamming on the brakes — though in several instances they later changed their minds.

So Britain’s vote on June 23 on whether to exit the European Union, a process often referred to as “Brexit,” could have huge ramifications.

Those who favor leaving say that Britain would have stronger control over its borders if it left the union, and that it could negotiate trade deals on its own. Their opponents warn that leaving the world’s largest trading bloc will have dire economic consequences.

Most economists say that leaving the European Union will have a negative impact in the short term, but that the longer-term consequences are less clear.

Simon Tilford, deputy director of the Center for European Reform, a research organization in London, noted that referendums in Europe had often fallen prey to oversimplification, base appeals to emotions and scaremongering on both sides. “Lots of people will not consider the issues carefully, but will instead allow their frustrations with immigration and globalization, or fears over loss of sovereignty, to influence how they vote,” he said.

Despite Tilford’s take, Bilefsky notes how voters in some cases seemed more strategic in their voting patterns. In Denmark and Ireland, for example, voters rejected treaties in the first go around. This forced renegotiation, whereby their governments got concessions. When a do-over referendum was called, the voters approved the new treaty.

Regardless of the wisdom of foreign-policy-by-referendum, these events provide an opportunity to directly assess how the public thinks about issues usually discussed behind closed doors of foreign ministries. The data is superior in some respects to survey questionnaires, whereby a pollster asks people to rank their generic feelings about concepts like “free trade.” In those contexts, the respondent may not have thought deeply about the issue, may not want to share their real views, or know that their response won’t directly effect real world outcomes. In short, the question may not be that salient to them, and their response thus not very revealing.

Robert Urbatsch conducted a study of a 2007 referendum in Costa Rica on the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), and describes some of the issues (methodological and otherwise) involved:

The vote on CAFTA garnered public and media attention as the first referendum
in Costa Rican history, and the free trade agreement was itself politically
contentious. The opposition had forced the government to submit the treaty to popular vote after months of constitutional maneuvering and street protests. Moreover, polling showed a close and tightening contest throughout the months leading up to the vote. In the event, the referendum passed with 51+6 percent of the vote; 59+2 percent of the electorate cast ballots. This compares with 65+4 percent turnout in the closely contested 2006 presidential election, typically the biggest event
in the Costa Rican electoral cycle.

Hence the 2007 Costa Rican vote was, unusually, a vote focused squarely on
high-salience international economic policy issues. It occurred, helpfully, in Latin
America, an especially fruitful area for research in mass attitudes toward markets
and international cooperation. Moreover, unlike in popular votes on the European
Union, the question at issue had few confounding issues of political unification
or regulatory change. The referendum accordingly offers rare insight into the
willingness of the public to accept or reject international economic liberalization
in a practical setting. The very rarity of this sort of vote of course raises questions
about generalizability: the circumstances that allowed such a vote are not likely to
have been random, and the results obviously do not speak to how trade policy
arises in most circumstances. The referendum nevertheless provides an internally
consistent way of looking at economic preferences. Where its results correspond
to or diverge from prior findings, it can help to establish their robustness to nonsurvey methodologies.

In his empirical section, he finds some surprising results. While theory would predict that workers in vulnerable import-competing sectors would be more likely to vote against CAFTA, Urbatsch found that education workers (which is thought to be non-trade sensitive)  were more opposed. Areas with pensioners were less likely to support, while indigenous voters were very likely to support CAFTA. Finally, opposition to the trade deal did not map neatly onto a left-right spectrum – something we’re seeing in the U.S. election this year as well.

As Urbatsch notes, there’s also reason to believe that the unique circumstances of the CAFTA vote affected the outcome. In a paper I wrote with Costa Rican economist Henry Mora at the time, we examined how the Bush administration intervened in the referendum. U.S. officials’ false suggestion that non-CAFTA trade preferences would expire may have helped sway public opinion.

In contrast to the CAFTA referendum, the Brexit referendum won’t be similarly tidy as an indicator of voter preferences. The campaigns for and against are throwing a wide range of issues on the table. As a result, voters may be channeling concerns about everything from trade, to immigration, to generic feelings about Europe, to even fishing practices. Nonetheless, it provides a rare opportunity for the average person to weigh in on the heights of statecraft. Whether the statecrafters will appreciate the input is a different matter.

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