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European Citizens´ Initiative Forum

The case for transnational referendums in the European Union

Updated on: 24/09/2020

For the 62nd time in half a century, voters in a country in Europe get the opportunity, on 27 September, to decide a European issue at the ballot box. However, such referendums are still very much national affairs and do not compensate for the lack of popular votes at the pan-EU-level, writes Bruno Kaufmann, author of the newly published European Democracy Passport.   

The imagery ahead of the 27 September vote in Switzerland on a labour accord with the European Union is as crude as usual. The campaign posters display the drawing of a working man with a belt containing EU stars crushing with his big bottom the red-white map of Switzerland. With this visual the political forces behind the citizens´ initiative for a “moderate immigration” want to underline the pressure from the agreements on free movement, which Switzerland and the European Union agreed more than 20 years ago.

Since then various aspects of this free movement arrangement have been subjected to political debates – both in parliaments and among people. While as many as 67.5% of the Swiss voters approved the initial agreement, several extensions – especially to the new member states in Central Europe – garnered positive majorities of 53-59 percent in another four popular votes during the ‘00s. However a citizens’ initiative to limit these freedoms (“mass immigration initiative”) took a wafer-thin victory in 2014, triggering a series of fine-tuning in the delicate diversions between the European Union and Switzerland, a non-member state – including the forthcoming vote on 27 September.

“Switzerland is very European - and Europe has become much more Swiss”

“No other country in Europe offers so many tools and procedures of direct involvement by the citizens in the decision making process as Switzerland”, says Zoltan Pallinger, professor of political science at Andrassy University in Budapest. Together with colleagues from across Europe he has contributed to a comprehensive report commissioned by the European Parliament assessing the use and future of direct democracy in and on Europe: “But when it comes to European issues, Switzerland is very European - and Europe has become much more Swiss”, comments Pallinger, referring to the fact that almost 30 countries have held nationwide popular votes on European integration issues since 1972.  

The precursor to today’s European Union (which got its name in 1992) was the European Coal and Steel Community (established in 1952) which developed (in 1957) into the European Economic Community. The founding fathers of this process to overcome the conflicts between nations leading to many wars in the first half of the 20th century did not like the idea of including citizens directly in the decision-making process. Their project was directed against the nationalistic violence of the past, something that for good reasons enjoyed great legitimacy among post-war Europeans. However, in the beginning of the 1960s, French president Charles de Gaulle started to understand that any further integration at the European level would require direct approval by the citizens:

“Europe will be born on the day on which the different peoples fundamentally decide to join. This will require referendums”, de Gaulle declared.

Constitutionally required – or simply appropriate

Consequently it was France where the first nationwide referendum on Europe was organised on 23 April 1972. The very same year, also the Irish, Norwegian, Danish and Swiss could have their direct say on a European issue. After that European opening to modern direct democracy more people got the opportunity to become decision-makers: “We have seen different types and logics of European referendums”, says Zurich University researcher Fernando Mendez, one of the co-authors of the European Commission referendum study: “Many ballots are constitutionally required as for example in Ireland while others are simply appropriate  for example when a country wants to become a member of the Union”. Other voting processes, triggered by a minority through a citizens’initiative or by government under pressure – like in the case of the British Prime Minister David Cameron’s decision to hold an advisory Brexit-plebiscite -, “are much more tricky”, says Fernandez, as the “consequences may be open to various political interpretations”.

Historically the majority - about two thirds - of nationwide referendums on Europe have approved the proposed integration steps. “We have found at least three big advantages of having the citizens in charge on Europe”, says Alois Stutzer, professor of political economy at Basel University: “The European project gains legitimacy, the path of integration is in line with the preferences of the people and the involved citizens become knowledgeable on the issue”, argues Stutzer, whose research has shown that on certain European issues an average Swiss has been better informed than an average member of the German Bundestag. As many other scholars of European affairs, Stutzer would welcome the establishment of a pan-European referendum:

“Such a transnational popular voting process would clearly strengthen the European Union and make it more able to deal with the big global challenges.”

As Irish EU correspondent Dan O´Brien noted, “inject a dose of human drama into the technocratic machinery of EU integration”.

The future of Europe – and modern direct democracy

The 62nd nationwide referendum on a European issue on 27 September comes at another crossroad of European history: This year the 27-member-state-bloc hopes to conclude the often painful process to get Brexit done and to start the “Conference on the Future of Europe”, the first constitutional review gathering since the 2002-2003 Convention on the Future of Europe.

We want to encourage the active participation of citizens in this process”,

said Croatian State Secretary of European Affairs, Andreja Metelko-Zgombić earlier this summer. And yet, in spite of both the normative and empirical case for using the referendum process in European politics, many leading politicians – mainly among the long time dominating political camps, the social democrats and conservatives – are still very skeptical when it comes to sharing power on Europe with their voters.

Two decades ago, in the Convention on the Future of Europe – which itself was the consequence of a popular vote, the Irish “no” on the Nice Treaty – discussed a whole set of initiative and referendum tools to be introduced at the EU level. In the very end majorities of the Convention members voted in favour of these reforms, while the Convention’s chairperson – former French president Giscard D´Estaing, as a gate-keeper for the member state governments –vetoed this move. Instead, he offered the establishment of a pan-European citizens’ initiative process, offering one million citizens from at least seven different member states the possibility to put forward legislative proposals to the European Commission – a “first baby step towards transnational direct democracy”, as Maja Setäla, a professor of political science at Turku University in Finland is describing it. Since its establishment in 2012 about one hundred European Citizens´Initiatives have been launched. The most recent, called Right to Cure, is dealing with the current Covid19-crisis, while one of the first such proposals asked the European Commission to end free movement with Switzerland – something the Swiss now themselves can decide in the end of September.  





Bruno Kaufmann

Bruno Kaufmann is the president of the Initiative and Referendum Institute, Europe’s Global Direct Democracy Think-Tank. He has published widely on issues related to participatory and direct democracy in Europe and the European Union and is the author of the European Democracy Passport available in 23 languages.

You can get in touch with him on the European Citizens’ Initiative Forum, or by clicking here!

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed on the ECI Forum reflect solely the point of view of their authors and can in no way be taken to reflect the position of the European Commission or of the European Union.