Brexit may well become a textbook example of the damage that a referendum can wreak on parliamentary democracy. To understand what a referendum is, one need only look at Tarrenz, a mountain village in the Austrian state of Tyrol. Its inhabitants also call it Hexendorf (witch village), because visitors are easily bewitched by its breathtaking natural beauty. But, in 1938, villagers in Tarrenz were bewitched by something else: political sentiment. We know how treacherous this sentiment can be because, by accident, this village held two referendums on the same issue in quick succession – two referendums that, just like the one the United Kingdom held on membership of the European Union in June 2016, concerned the future of the country.
The first Tarrenz referendum, held on 13 March 1938, was organized by then Austrian chancellor Kurt Schuschnigg. Schuschnigg was intimidated by Hitler, who increasingly threatened to invade Austria. On 9 March, the chancellor tried to push against the tide by announcing a referendum on the preservation of Austrian independence. But, two days later, he cancelled it under pressure from Hitler, who promised to invade if the vote went ahead. Hitler side-lined Schuschnigg anyway, and replaced him with a loyal Austrian Nazi, Arthur Seyss-Inquart (who later came to control the occupied Netherlands on behalf of Hitler). Then, on 12 March, Hitler’s forces marched into Austria. But Tarrenz had not received the news that Schuschnigg’s referendum had been cancelled. There, the referendum went ahead as planned, with 100 percent of residents voting for Austrian independence – and, therefore, against Nazi domination.
On 10 April, another referendum took place. Because many Austrians welcomed Hitler with open arms, he quickly decided to ask the Austrian people to approve the annexation. This, he reasoned, would provide legitimacy to the Anschluss. And so, within one month, the village of Tarrenz went to the polls once more. To the question of whether their country should be joined to the Third Reich, 99.7 percent of Austrians said “yes”. In Tarrenz, support was even higher: there, everyone voted for Nazi domination.
The point of this fascinating story is not the comparison with the 1930s. We do not live in the 1930s – even if there are some parallels between then and now. What is fascinating is that a village completely changed its opinion on an issue within one month. The story of Tarrenz is to be found in Uncrowned Emperor, a biography of Otto von Habsburg, son of the last Habsburg emperor. Otto was persona non grata in Austria – but he worked from abroad to keep his country out of the claws of the Nazis. He told his biographer and friend Gordon Brook-Shepherd that he kept in touch with Schuschnigg during his last days as a chancellor, advising him to engage in all kinds of political maneuvers and solutions (which the chancellor disregarded).
Now, back to the Brexit referendum.
In a parliamentary democracy like the UK’s, laws are made by elected representatives of the people, according to rules of play that have been established after long consideration. Members of Parliament almost never agree about anything. That is why they are there in the first place. Their job is to turn issues inside out, to deliberate endlessly, and – finally – to find careful compromises that take the diverse opinions of the voters into consideration. Thus, parliamentary democracy is a way – a ritual, almost – to ensure that various groups within society are not at each other’s throats.
A referendum, in contrast – if it is not carefully managed and accompanied by rational debates, such as those that recently took place in Switzerland and Ireland – revolves around the sentiments of the masses. It is a snapshot, because – look at Tarrenz – this sentiment can easily be manipulated and is as changeable as the weather. Moreover, it undermines the parliamentary process. Instead of reconciling groups in society, it sets them against each other. In the Brexit referendum, 51.9 percent of voters excluded the other 48.1 percent. Since then, there has been no way back and no way forward. Whatever happens, someone always shouts “that is undemocratic!”
Now, Boris Johnson wants to force his way forward using some perfectly legal tricks to completely side-line parliamentary democracy for a few crucial weeks.
What is at stake here is neither EU membership nor national sovereignty, but the essence of parliamentary democracy.
Caroline de Gruyter is a Europe correspondent and columnist for the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad and a Council Member of the European Council on Foreign Relations.