We are owed a referendum on the EU

The 40,000 signatures needed for the Citizens Forum EU are in the bag. A referendum may slow down the European integration process but ‘any government willing to hand over national sovereignty to a new power owes it to the democratic tradition to consult the people’, write Coos Huijsen and Geerten Waling

It took only a matter of weeks for the Citizens Forum EU to gather the requisite number of signatures. This didn’t come as a surprise: according to a Maurice de Hond poll, 64 percent of the population wants a referendum on European integration.

Now this citizens’ initiative has proved successful, the government is bound by law to put an EU referendum on the agenda. MPs are hesitant, none more so than the Democrats from D66.

Hot potato

A referendum, no matter what the referendum question, will slow down the European integration process, with all the economic and political problems that entails. This makes the sovereignty question a political hot potato. But is that a reason for ignoring its existence?

The most important political level is still that of the nation state, as Mark Rutte, the nation state’s most important official, recently confirmed on the tv chat show Paul&Witteman: ‘We are sovereign and autonomous’.  Meanwhile, forced by far-reaching crisis measures, sovereignty is being transferred to a supranational constellation in Brussels.

In times of unrest policy shouldn’t be determined by a turbulent present or an insecure future. We should look to a long history of economic and social successes and ask ourselves which traditions and institutions still have value today, or even: carry a duty. The nation state is such an institution.


As French historian Ernest Renan wrote in his landmark speech What is a nation? (1882), a nation is based on the willingness of the people to belong together. ‘A nation is a soul, a spiritual principle. Two things, which in truth are but one, constitutes this soul or spiritual principle. One is the possession in common of a rich legacy of memories, the other is present-day consent, the desire to live together, the will to perpetuate the value of the heritage that one has received in an undivided form.’

The desire to live together is far from evident on a European scale and will only become more improbable as the crisis continues to divide the EU member states. It is much more prominent on a national scale and forms part of a number of identities in our possession.


Not that the nation state is sacred or everlasting. International issues such as the environment, banking supervision and migration can only be tackled by a strong alliance. Small and medium-sized European countries cannot do without each other on the ever-more diffuse world stage. And they don’t have to do without each other: for the last fifty years they have proved there is enough solidarity to support an intensive, continental cooperation.

That doesn’t detract from the fact that the form in which the democratic state of law has been upheld most successfully since 1848 is still the nation state. Two factors should be taken into account when it comes to a far-reaching transfer of sovereignty: the political question of democratic legitimacy and the emotional aspects that go with nationhood. In Renan’s words: ‘Nationality has a sentimental side to it, it is both soul and body at once; a Zollverein is not a patrie’.

Any government willing to hand over national sovereignty to a new power owes it to the democratic tradition to consult the people whose sovereignty it is taking away. That is why it would be wise, in the spirit of Renan, to hold a referendum on the consequences of European integration for the nation state. ‘If doubts arise regarding its frontiers, consult the population in the areas in dispute. They have an indisputable right to a say in the matter’.


Coos Huijsen and Geerten Waling are historians

This article appeared earlier in the Volkskrant






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