Printer Friendly Page EU Constitution, a Tragic Voting Process ~ #53

EU Constitution, a Tragic Voting Process ~ #53

By Alan F. Kay, PhD
© 2005, (fair use with attribution and copy to authors)
June 27, 2005

The mighty dollar was (and for almost a century had been) the world's reserve currency of choice, better than gold.  Then came a new challenge. 

The economy of the upstart European Union had challenged and bested the mighty economy of the sole superpower.  The story was to be seen in the Euro/U.S. Dollar (€/$) ratio, which went from a low of .85 to a high of 1.35, a 60% increase in two years, ending in 2004.

During this exhilarating time for the European Union, the 25 member nations agreed to adopt a uniform Constitution that should have settled – for each nation for years to come – all its rights, obligations and responsibilities by, for, and to the union.  After acceptance by their EU representatives, the Constitution was to be democratically endorsed by most member nation's legislatures or electorates.  About eight members intended to conduct national popular referendums.  The first, the referendum by Spain (Feb. 20, 2005) produced a turnout of 42.3%, 76.7% favorable.  That enthusiasm led to final approval by Spain's Congress on April 28 and its Senate on May 18, 2005.  The picture turned upside-down 11 days later when 70% of the French electorate turned out with 54.8% opposed to the Constitution followed on June 1 by 63% of the Netherlands electorate turning out with 61.7% opposed. 

This rejection of the Constitution by 27 million voters created a crisis.  Every reporter, editor, and pundit in Europe, not to mention national political leaders and the EU administration, engaged in weeks of accusations, discussions, and speculation on dozens of reasons for this popular rejection. 

Leaders of the 25 EU member nations should have expected the crisis.  After consideration and due debate over several years, they had accepted a 400-page document to be the new Constitution.  But they ignored the fact that with very little first-hand knowledge of what went into the process they had developed and worked through, the voters of those same nations might easily disagree with them. Why?

When voters are presented with a 400-page document and asked to vote, up or down (yes or no), there is no way that most people would have the time, the energy, the patience, or the desire to understand the numerous items covered by the document, which would be necessary to make a reasonable choice on each item.  When that is done, even fewer would then choose to aggregate that understanding to a single yes/no decision for all items.  Is the right word to describe this situation "ludicrous?"  No, the right word is "insane." 

On the part of the 25 member countries' top leaders and a few hundred of their minions, this situation occurred through years of concentrated "group thinking" out of touch with the public's views.

The U.S. Constitution was written on a single parchment page, with no attempt to pin down responses to every contingency.  The EU Constitution grew to be over 400 pages by embodying the rules, precedents and regulations that all the agencies of the European Union thought necessary in order to do their future business, with little concern for what the people of member countries might really want them to do.  This ultimate in government bureaucracy being in charge was enough to make many people negative toward the proposed Constitution.  A one-page (up to a few-page) version of the 400-page document would have given the public a fair shot at achieving a sensible, constructive (perhaps not supportive) position with their votes.

So, how could the reasons for voters' decisions be made known to the leaders and how could the leaders make rational decisions of what had to be done to gain the people's support for a new Constitution?  The answer to this should bring tears to your eyes, even as you may know it's coming.  For a cost of less than 0.1% of the cost of the referendums themselves, and a maximum probable error of  ±2%, a few thousand randomly sampled voters in each country could have been asked on the same Constitution ballot or in an attachment thereto, a fairly complete selection of a variety of questions and with a variety of wording, on why they were voting for or against the Constitution.  Some peoples' votes reflect their concern for the very concept of a Constitution.  Others are concerned with what the European Union might do in the future based on such a new Constitution.  Still others may be reacting to their own national government or to recent developments unrelated to any constitutional matter. 

The first question might be generic, open-ended, "Why do you favor/oppose the Constitution?"  Further questions would offer a wide range of choices, anything that leaders suspect might be objections to, or desires for, the Constitution.  Here is a sample menu: desire to (1) reject country leader or (2) be more conservative, (3) dislike domination by Brussels, (4) loss to the Euro of the national currency's role, (5) loss of national identity, (6) reaction to perceived poor economy, (7) immigration fears, (8) EU job openings drifting to low wage countries, or (9) low wage workers in eastern Europe take work from locals. 

A speculation by José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Union, presents another kind of menu item.  In a New York Times story (Brussels, June 22), Barroso said voters were signaling concern with Turkey gaining EU membership.  Might or might not well be true.  It needed to be asked.

Assuming such surveys were properly designed and analyzed, these responses would have told the leaders much more precisely what bothered the public, both open-ended, and by the people's choices from a wide range of menu choices.  Leaders would know – now you should start crying – how to fix the proposed Constitution so that at a later election, the Constitution would pass with flying colors.

Instead we have disputes, chaos and some likelihood that the whole Constitution process and the integrity of the European Union itself is scarred, perhaps threatened.  Without such surveys, now the people's choices will tragically never be known.

All because our leaders don't understand public-interest polling, certainly not to the extent that the readers of these columns do.

>>> 2.5  The Polling Critic

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