When talking about a referendum it is important to differentiate between a consultative referendum and a decisive referendum. As the word indicates consultative means that the population is merely consulted, and their opinion will have no binding force over the actual decision making process. Within a decisive referendum on the other hand, the word of the population is binding: it dictates the outcome of a legislative process.
Most if not all of the referendums you hear about in the news are in fact consultative referendums. From a standpoint of democratic participation, they don’t mean much – as the government can do the exact opposite of what the majority expresses through the referendum. This happened very clearly in Greece, where the referendum of 2015 was praised as an astonishing democratic move by the Greek Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, who then on the next day went ahead and pushed a deal through parliament which was 10 times worse than the proposal to which the population had clearly voted NO.
The Netherlands (and France, amongst other countries) held consultative referendums with regards to the question of whether there should be a European Constitution for the European Union in 2004-2005. The Dutch (and the French) said no. In this instance the Dutch government saw itself forced indeed to give a negative vote towards the project and the European Constitution was stopped on this level. So even though within a consultative referendum the government is not bound to the outcome of the popular vote, it can on it's own accord decide to seemingly honor its outcome. However, with the ratification of the later Lisbon treaty in 2007, basically all the provisions that should have been in the European Constitution were accepted as part of the Lisbon Treaty and through this back door the desired changes were implemented anyways.
The Netherlands has a particular history with referendums.
At this point in time it would not even be possible for the Dutch to have a decisive referendum, in the sense that even if such a referendum were organized, its outcome would be invalid due to a specific arrangement in the Dutch constitution. In short, according to the Dutch constitution, only the government is a capable legislator. Therefore, those who are not the government, cannot vote on legislation. They cannot make laws.
Now let’s keep this in mind and let us look at a definition of democracy that is widely agreed upon throughout the world: «Government of the people, by the people, for the people» This quote is attributed to Abraham Lincoln, and you will find it in all textbooks that talk about the subject of democracy. What is interesting in this definition is that there is as such no differentiation made between the people and the government. The people in essence govern themselves.
The reason why I chose the topic of referendums is that it clearly allows us to see that the countries in Europe are simply not democracies. The Netherlands, which is popularly believed to be a free spirited country, does not even allow for the possibility of a decisive referendum. This per definition excludes the Netherlands from being a democracy. And the same is true for other countries in Europe.
Vigorous attempts in the Netherlands to change the constitution have failed time and time again. This ultimately culminated in the famous ‘Night of Wiegel’ (De Nacht van Wiegel). Wiegel was a senator who voted ‘no’ on the proposal for referendum and through his one vote was able to stop the change in the constitution. This led to a little crisis but once the votes were cast there was nothing that could be done. The constitution remained unchanged. An added ingredient to this whole mix is the fact that senators are actually not elected representatives in the Netherlands. They are voted into office by the provinces…
In the light of all this you will also understand that the 'new' (since 2007) tool utilized by the European Commission, namely the Citizens Initiative, is a highly deceptive instrument. It states that when 1 million signatures are collected throughout Europe on a specific matter, then the Commission will ‘have a look’ at the ‘demand’. This off course in no way obliges the Commission to do anything with this petition. They can simply brush it off their table and this is exactly what they have been doing.
It is important to come to terms with this state of affairs.
It is clear that ours societies have been evolving for some time now in a direction that is authoritarian. The question of the democratic legitimacy within decision making has become less and less relevant. The so-called financial crisis has greatly contributed to this evolution.
It is therefore suggested to rather than to ‘demand change’ to actually start educating oneself and to become an active force within society. There are many people and groups in the world that see what is going on and are starting to form collaborative networks. Instead of asking your governments to change, become the government, start scripting the future, get involved.