European Union Politics

Palgrave Foundations Series

by John McCormick

Chapter 16: Elections and Referendums

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European integration has been criticized over the decades for its weak democratic qualities. The treaties have too often been negotiated behind closed doors, argue the critics, and member states have had to surrender sovereignty with too little reference to the views of European voters. This has undermined enthusiasm for the European project, which has often seemed elitist and distant from the needs and interests of ordinary Europeans. And yet there are two key channels through which they can influence the direction taken by EU policy.

First, elections to the European Parliament are held every five years, and give voters the opportunity to elect representatives to the EP, which has become more powerful in recent years. But European voters have not taken full advantage of EP elections: turnout has fallen from a high of 63 per cent in 1979 to a low of 43 per cent in 2009, and many of those who cast their votes make their choices more on the basis of national issues than of European issues; elections are often polls on the job being done by incumbent governments, with the result that the bigger mainstream parties often do less well than smaller parties.

Second, national referendums on European issues have been held with growing frequency. There is no consistency as to when and where they will be held: thus Ireland must hold referendums on amendments to its national constitution, and political pressures have led to several votes on European issues in Denmark and France, but most EU member states have avoided them. Nonetheless, the pressures to hold referendums on the adoption of new treaties have grown, and even a single national vote has occasionally been enough to spark a Europe-wide debate about the progress of integration.
  • Direct elections to the European Parliament have been held every five years since 1979, using proportional representation (PR).
  • Among the consequences of PR is the return of numerous political parties to power, resulting in most EU states in a tradition of coalition governments.
  • Since the introduction of direct elections to the EP in 1979, turnout has fallen from a high of 63 per cent to a low of 43 per cent in 2009. Among the explanations for this trend is the difference between first-order and second-order elections.
  • While turnout at EP elections has fallen, support for non-conventional forms of political participation has grown.
  • Voters in some states have been offered national referendums, although there is no consistency on when and where they will be held. In terms of referendums, Europe has become the single most voted-on issue in the world.
  • The subject of most referendums has been membership of the EEC/EU or the euro, or approval of a new treaty.
  • Denmark and Ireland have had the most referendums on European issues, and only seven EU member states – Belgium, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Germany, Greece, Portugal, and Romania – have had none.
  • A distinction must be made between referendums that are mandatory or facultative (initiated by public or political demand), and between those that are binding and non-binding.
  • The outcome of EP elections and of national referendums is often influenced by the popularity of governing and opposition parties in different member states.