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The 'Referendum Threat', the Rationally Ignorant Voter, and the Political Culture of the EU

University College Dublin Law Research Paper No. 04/2009
28 Pages Posted: 13 Mar 2009 Last revised: 18 Mar 2009

Giandomenico Majone

European University Institute - Economics Department (ECO)
Date Written: January 23, 2009

The chasm separating elite and popular opinion on the achievements and finality of European integration was never so visible as after the negative referendums on the Constitutional and the Lisbon Treaties. The public attitude prevailing in the past has been characterized as one of permissive consensus, meaning that the integration project was seemingly taken for granted by European publics as an accepted part of the political landscape. Permissive consensus made possible Jean Monnet's method of integration by stealth, and also made plausible the basic assumption of the first social-scientific analyses of that method: namely, that today crucial policy decisions are taken by political and economic elites, so that, as Ernest Haas put it, a majority, in the strict sense, is not required to make policy. The current stage of the integration process is best understood as the end of permissive consensus, but EU leaders do not seem to be sufficiently aware of the far-reaching consequences entailed by this change in the attitude of European publics. One important reason for this inability, or unwillingness, to assess realistically the new situation is the peculiar political culture grown up in more than half a century of intense, if not always productive, integrationist efforts. A striking demonstration of the hold of this political culture on the minds of EU leaders is the view of popular referendums as an unconscionable risk for the integration process - the referendum roulette. One of the favourite arguments against ratification of European treaties by popular referendum is that voters cannot be expected to read and evaluate technically and legally complex texts running into hundreds of pages. It will be shown, however, that this argument is flawed in several respects; carried to its logical conclusion, it would lead to severe restrictions of the franchise even at the national level. 

The paper is organized as follows. The first section discusses the end of the permissive consensus and the growing politicization of the integration project. In the following section I attempt to characterize more precisely the implicit operational rules forming the core of the EU's political culture. Although these rules are an important part of the legacy of Monnet's method, they have never been openly acknowledged either in official documents or in the academic literature. The third section examines the current debate on treaty ratification by referendum in light of the theory of the rationally ignorant voter. The following section explains the growing estrangement of EU citizens from European institutions along the lines of Lipset's analysis of the relation between legitimacy and problem-solving effectiveness. The fifth and last section suggests that the EU may be entering an age of diminished expectations: leaders realize that the current approach to European integration no longer delivers very much, but there is little demand for an alternative approach that might do better. I conclude that some form of differentiated integration may offer the only possibility of avoiding the dilemma of dissolution or irrelevance.

MAJONE, Giandomenico. The 'Referendum Threat', the Rationally Ignorant Voter, and the Political Culture of the EU (January 23, 2009). University College Dublin Law Research Paper No. 04/2009. Disponível em: <https://ssrn.com/abstract=1359047>. Acesso em 23 ago. 2017.

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