The EU and referendums

A new line of attack by eurosceptics came my way the other day: the claim that the EU ignored national democratic decisions when it came to the French and Dutch referendums on the proposed EU constitution, Ireland’s initial ‘No’ to the Lisbon treaty, and the Greek referendum of 2015. They claim that all these decisions were “overruled by the EU”!

In all three of these cases, if you look closer, the eurosceptic narrative turns out to be yet another of their attempts to conjure up a conspiracy on subjects where they hope many people are unfamiliar with the detail.

So what actually happened?

France and the Netherlands

Back in 2005, France and the Netherlands rejected a proposal to replace the EU treaties with a constitution. Since any treaty change or replacement needs the unanimous support of every country, the idea was dropped, even though most other countries had approved it. Instead, the existing treaties were kept and amended.


In 2008, Ireland initially rejected the Lisbon treaty in a referendum. The Irish parliament then set up a special committee to identify the main concerns of the Irish people, and to assess whether they could be addressed in a way that would respect the fact that every other member country had ratified the treaty. As a result of its work, the Irish government (together with the governments of all other member countries) agreed a list of clarifications and interpretations of the treaty, and wrote a set of guarantees for Ireland which were later enshrined in a protocol appended to the treaty.

The Irish government then decided to hold a new referendum, this time on the treaty together with the new guarantees. In this new referendum, the package was approved.

Eurosceptics don’t mention that the first referendum was decided by a narrow majority on a small turnout, whereas the second referendum approved the treaty by a comfortable majority on a high turnout!


In 2015, Greece held a referendum on the terms of a new bailout loan it wanted from the IMF and fellow eurozone countries. It rejected the initial terms, and new ones were agreed after further negotiations.

The new terms were not very different — hence the criticism. But the problem here was that Greece could not unilaterally vote in a referendum to commit taxpayers from other countries. These other countries and the IMF were reluctant to offer much more, as this was the third bailout loan for Greece, coming not long after the second loan was accompanied by a write-off of half of Greece’s debt. Some eurozone countries are poorer than Greece, and were particularly reluctant to commit after successive Greek governments had failed to tax rich oligarchs or cut the very high level of military expenditure seen by many as a pay-off to the army to stay out of politics.

In any case, the terms of Greece’s new loan could not be unilaterally imposed by either side — they had to be a negotiated agreement, approved by all involved.

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