Europeans Want Direct Democracy
AP Photo/Matt Dunham
Europeans Want Direct Democracy
AP Photo/Matt Dunham
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The coming year in Europe promises political drama as Brexit negotiations continue, Italians go to the polls, and Germany’s main parties seek a lasting governing coalition. But behind these headline-making political stories stands a deeper question of Europeans’ dissatisfaction with democracy as a way to run their country.  Here the news is mixed, with potentially portentous implications for the future.

Across the 10 EU countries the Pew Research Center polled in 2017, a median of 50 percent say they are dissatisfied with the way democracy is working in their country, compared with just 48 percent who are satisfied. Such disgruntlement is not universal. The picture varies markedly from country-to-country: More than seven-in-ten in Sweden (79 percent), the Netherlands (77 percent), and Germany (73 percent) are pleased with their current democratic system, compared with one-in-four or less in Spain (25 percent) and Greece (21 percent). The Spanish figures precede the secessionist vote in Catalonia. 

European popular support for current forms of democracy is also far from rock solid. A median of 80 percent of those surveyed have a positive view of representative democracy. But the intensity of that support again varies. At one extreme, 54 percent of Swedes say a system in which elected representatives decide what becomes law is a very good way to govern their country. But just 20 percent of Poles are equally enthusiastic about their parliamentary system. 

However, it is Europeans’ desire to have their voices heard on issues of the day which may have the most significant long-term implications. This translates into strong support for direct democracy, a governing system where citizens, not elected officials, vote directly on major national issues.

A median of 70 percent of European adults believes that public referenda would be a good way to govern their country. This includes nearly eight-in-ten Greeks and roughly three-quarters of the Spanish, Germans, and French. Notably, while still enjoying majority support, enthusiasm for direct democracy is lowest in the Netherlands (55 percent) and the United Kingdom (56 percent), the two EU nations that have most recently held a national referendum. 

Supporters of a number of populist parties are particularly enthusiastic about such direct democracy. In Spain, 88 percent of those who hold a favorable view of the Podemos party say citizens voting on national issues would be good for the country. In Germany, 84 percent of AfD backers agree, as do 77 percent of PVV supporters in the Netherlands.

Less educated people also see merit in direct democracy. In Germany and the Netherlands, people with a high school education or less are more likely than those with additional education to support referenda-based government. 

Notably, enthusiasm for direct democracy is shared across generations. In only two of the 10 countries polled are younger adults (ages 18-29) more likely than those ages 50 and older to back direct democracy. 

On what issues might European publics want to hold plebiscites? Well, continued membership in the EU is one.

A median of 53 percent across the nine Continental EU publics surveyed supports holding a national vote on their own country’s continued EU membership. This includes nearly two-thirds of the Spanish, roughly six-in-ten French adults, and half of the Germans. 

Support for a popular vote on continued EU membership is particularly strong among backers of euroskeptic parties, some of which have advocated for precisely such referenda. For instance, in France, 84 percent of those who favor the National Front want a referendum on continued EU membership. In Germany, 69 percent of those who look positively on the AfD want a similar plebiscite, as do 69 percent of supporters of the PVV in the Netherlands, and 63 percent of those who favor the Five Star Movement in Italy.

Does this mean that publics in these countries want their own exit from the EU? Not necessarily. A median of just 18 percent in the nine surveyed Continental EU member states say they want their country to exit the European Union as well. So, broad support for referenda on EU membership may be less a call for leaving the union and more a desire for a greater voice within the European Union.

But before any European leaders agree to such plebiscites, they might want to ask David Cameron about the unforeseen consequences of asking the public to vote on EU membership. Indeed, if the desire of Europeans for more direct democracy becomes a reality, Brexit may only be a foretaste of things to come.

Bruce Stokes is director of global economic attitudes at Pew Research Center. The views expressed here are the author’s own.