California crosses the Atlantic

Observations on the European Constitution

Direct democracy was born in the ancient Athenian city state but soon fell into disuse, only to be revived 2,000 years later by the republican idealism (or mob rule, depending on your view) of the American frontier. Could it be about to come home? Buried deep in the new draft European Union constitution is a single sentence that could bring California-style democracy to Europe. Article I-46 states that if you can collect a million signatures in favour of a policy, the European Commission must put forward a proposal to the Council of Ministers.

True, this is a very mild form of direct democracy, given that the council is at liberty to reject the proposal. However, if it did so, it would risk further accusations that the EU is anti-democratic and elitist. If you doubt the importance of the provision, consider that the UK delegation to the constitutional convention took it seriously enough to oppose it tooth and nail. In the end, it was included at the insistence of the German Green Party, which has a long-standing commitment to "people power" (perhaps a curious stance, given that the German federal constitution specifically outlaws referendums because of their associations with the Nazis).

Before you get too excited at the prospect, note that, in California, those who make the greatest use of citizens' initiatives are right-wingers and people who want to constrain state power. Among more than a hundred initiatives passed by Californians are the "three strikes and you're out" life sentences for repeat offenders; dramatic cuts to property taxes; and a ban on public universities using positive discrimination in favour of minorities. The famously quirky Californians have also passed proposals to outlaw the slaughter of horses for human consumption as well as the sale of horsemeat; to ban certain kinds of traps and poisons used for bear-catching; and to sanction the medicinal use of marijuana.

In 2003, Governor Gray Davis was unceremoniously booted from office by a popular vote triggered by a citizens' initiative and replaced by Arnold Schwarzenegger. The Austrian-born bodybuilder soon realised that his powers were hamstrung by the very direct democracy that had swept him to office. Voter-mandated initiatives, along with compulsory state spending on federal policies such as Medicaid and welfare, swallow between 60 and 80 per cent of the state budget.

Which proposals would find favour in Europe? We can hazard a few pessimistic guesses: a ban on genetically modified crops, perhaps; a reduction in the rights of immigrants and asylum-seekers; a return of capital punishment; a ban on abortion; or a limit on EU spending. Certainly, it would not be hard for a big NGO or lobby group or a wealthy businessman to raise a million signatures from among Europe's 480 million citizens. Yet, for all the dangers, citizens' initiatives, if they take off, could open the EU to a new form of participatory democracy, and start to solve the legitimacy problem that has long plagued the European integration project.

Jack Thurston is a senior research associate at the Foreign Policy Centre and is writing a book about the Californian gold rush

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