+++ (FT) Brussels briefing: Referendum zigzag

(FT) Back in 2005, it was Jean-Claude Juncker who caught the mood after Dutch and French voters spurned a draft EU constitution. “Europe is not in crisis: it is in deep crisis,” he declared. He has gone from Luxembourgish premier to European Commission president since then – and the Dutch are back to saying No. This time team Juncker relayed that the president was just “sad” about the rejection of the Ukraine trade deal. And for europhiles that pretty much sums it up.

This has been a long journey. Referendums on European issues, from the 1970s on, largely acted as a rite of passage: membership, enlargement, monetary union. They then morphed into more wide ranging political guarantees for eurosceptic voters (in Denmark, Britain or France) wary of where pro-European politicians may lead them. Some would call them a reality check.

More recently they have grown to be not just domestic political matters, but negotiating tools or instruments of coercion abroad. This is the weaponisation of referendums and a few EU leaders have been accused of the tactic: Greece’s Alexis Tsipras over bailout terms, Britain’s David Cameron to win a better deal, and Hungary’s Viktor Orban over migration quotas.

The fourth leg of this evolution comes with the Dutch vote. Their Ukraine referendum was unsolicited direct democracy, driven by anti-EU sentiment (and a bit of British inspiration). If it becomes a trend, in the area of trade alone the Canada deal might be next, the pact with the US (if it ever happens), or future attempts to strengthen ties with eastern neighbours.

Losing votes changes political calculations too. After that Dutch No, delivering the promise of free visa travel for Ukrainians or Turks seems that little bit harder. Diplomats say the slim chance of bold discussions at Thursday’s Franco-German summit – which was a tepid business – was seen-off by the looming Brexit vote.

Some in Brussels would love to make this referendum nuisance to go away. A better idea might be to win some campaigns. In the meantime there is muddling through. For all the doom-laden predictions, the EU didn’t come to a standstill in 2005. But it had to give up the dream of moving in straight lines. Brussels is still zigzagging today – and will twist and turn until it fixes the Ukraine deal (Der Spiegel and de Volkskrant outline some options). That is the European condition. The bigger question is whether plebiscite politics will hobble Brussels and drive it to distraction. Now that would make Mr Juncker sad.

What we’re reading

Cameron folds

It finally happened. After days of tortured semi-denials and half-answers, David Cameron admitted that he once made money from an offshore fund established by his late father. Shortly before becoming prime minister, he and his wife sold £30,000 worth of shares in a fund set up in Panama (this turned out to be fortunate timing; the Blairmore fund is down 7.6 per cent over the past 5 years). Mr Cameron’sextended ITV interview gives a sense of how hurtful he has found his “father’s name being unfairly written about”. His opponents smell blood. Robert Shrimsley givessome sardonic perspective on a scandal providing “final shocking proof that Mr Cameron is jolly rich and that his wheeler-dealing dad was even richer”.

Migration: avert your eyes

Some harrowing reporting from the Greek islands in the Guardian. Some migrants have threatened to commit suicide if they are forced to return to Turkey. Piotr Zalewski for the Economist paints a grim picture here of the limbo most Afghan andnon-Syrian migrants face in Turkey. Thomas de Maizière, Germany’s interior minister, dismissed criticism of the Turkey deal, insisting it is the right course even ifthere are some difficult pictures. Interestingly, German public opinion seems to have swung against Turkey, while views of Greece are rapidly improving.

SOS centre-left

Germany’s social democrat SPD have sunk to a historic low in the polls. Sigmar Gabriel’s party are down to 21 per cent, the lowest ever recorded in an ARD poll since it began in 1997. What happened? That’s a good excuse to read the Economist’s excellent living-obituary of Europe’s centre left.

Beware Portugal

The FT’s Thomas Hale offers a handy guide to Portugal slow-slide in capital markets. Political risks are building, investors are jittery, borrowing costs are rising, and a ratings downgrade could tip the balance. DBRS’s rating comes up for review at the end of the month and a negative decision would exclude it from the ECB’s bond-buying programme.

White hat, blue elbow patches

It is an extraordinary five mile walk. Newly released video of the so-called Man in White, the third attacker in the Brussels airport, tracks his nonchalant journey across Brussels until he drops out of sight a few hundred meters from the EU headquarters. His face is still hidden behind the hat, but he does remove his jacket to reveal some highly suspicious blue elbow patches on a white shirt – surely all anyone needs to identify him.bnytui