Select Committee on European Scrutiny Thirty-Third Report


168. The role of referendums in the EU attracted relatively little interest during our inquiry. The point was strongly put to us that the principle of subsidiarity applies here: it is up to individual countries to decide whether to have referendums or not. Indeed in some countries they are unconstitutional.[305] We consider here just two questions: how the EU should respond to negative referendum results, and the possibility of Europe-wide referendums.

169. Some referendums on EU matters affect directly only the Member State holding the referendum—for example, referendums in Member States with an opt-out from the euro on whether to adopt it. Others, such as the Irish referendum on the Nice Treaty, potentially impose a veto on what others may do. In such a case there are only two possible responses:

  • The result, even if in a relatively small country on a low turnout, can be allowed to act as a veto over what the EU as a whole may do;

  • The country concerned can hold the referendum again, possibly after concessions have been made.

From a democratic point of view, neither option is at all attractive. However, where turnout is low, we do not dissent from the practice of holding a referendum again.

170. The possibility of national referendums taking place throughout the EU on the same day on major Treaty changes (and perhaps on other issues) is of some interest. Professor Bogdanor argued that Europe-wide referendums 'might ... do a great deal to overcome the sense of alienation and remoteness felt by many Europeans', and 'would be an explicit recognition of the principle of the sovereignty of the people'.[306] A simple majority overall would certainly not be appropriate. Other than for major Treaty changes, provision could be made similar to qualified majority voting in the Council, so that not every Member State would have to vote 'yes', but a certain proportion of Member States or the total population or both would have to do so. However, as Lord Norton indicated, such referendums would be seen by some as a method of overcoming the opposition of majorities in individual Member States, turnouts might be low, and citizens might feel less 'connected' to the EU than if they voted in purely national referendums.[307] Since unanimity would be needed for such a Europe-wide referendum to take place, many Member States have no tradition of holding referendums, and the result might not be accepted in countries which voted differently from the majority, we regard the idea as impracticable for the foreseeable future. The same applies to the proposal by the Foreign Policy Centre for the holding of referendums as a result of citizens' initiatives.[308]

305   Ev 94; Q. 276; Ev 16. Back

306   Ev 7. Back

307   Ev 16-17. Back

308   Q. 91. Back

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