The Strategic Use of Government-Sponsored Referendums in Contemporary Europe: Issues and Implications

From Britain to Catalonia, referendums seem to be ubiquitous in today's European politics. A new article by Professor Cecilia Sottilotta published on the Journal of Contemporary European Research analyzes four referendums which took place between 2015 and 2016 in Greece, Britain, Hungary and Italy. The article debunks the political risk calculation underpinning the government's decision to sponsor a referendum in each of the cases considered. The article argues that the governments of the countries considered have used referendums to achieve specific political goals, also suggesting that such a strategic use of referendums by governments in contemporary Europe can be better understood if read in light of the recent upsurge of populist movements.

In recent times, the use of referendums meant as ‘[Devices] of direct democracy by which the people are asked to vote directly on an issue or policy’ (Morel 2011: 2226) has increased in the context of democratic – as well as non-democratic – regimes worldwide. As reported by the Center for Research on Direct Democracy (c2d), 843 national level referendums were held worldwide between 1700 and 1970, while between 1970 and 2015 the global number of national level referendums was 1907 (c2d 2016). Aside from normative analyses hinging on the advantages and drawbacks of direct democracy (see for instance Setälä 1999), a central problem in empirical approaches to the study of referendums is how they are embedded and used in the framework of representative democracies (Mendelsohn and Parkin 2001). In the context of the European Union (EU) in particular, referendums are one of several ‘political opportunity structures’ critically influencing the extent to which the EU is becoming increasingly politicised at the domestic level (Bellamy and Kröger 2016: 126). A strand of literature has emerged over the last few decades showing that, especially when referendums are not mandatory, governments can use them as tools to achieve specific political goals (Morel 2001; Walker 2003; Rahat 2009; Qvotrup 2016). This article is a theoretically-informed analysis of the most recent cases of government-sponsored referendums in EU countries: the July 2015 referendum in Greece on the acceptance of the bailout conditions proposed by the EU; the June 2016 ‘Brexit’ referendum in the UK; the October 2016 referendum on the relocation of asylum seekers in Hungary; and the December 2016 referendum on constitutional reform in Italy. The selection of cases was performed on the basis of the most diverse method as defined by Seawright and Gerring (2008): the units of analysis are referendums which were all held in EU member states and were sponsored by incumbent governments after the beginning of the 2008 financial and economic crisis. However, in spite of these commonalities, they display substantial differences in virtually all other dimensions, including the substantive issue at stake, the political orientation of the governing party, the countries’ membership/non-membership in the Eurozone, the sub-region (Southern, Northern and Central Europe) to which the countries under consideration belong. The concept of ‘government-sponsored referendum’ adopted here is a broad one, referring to cases in which referendums were not directly mandated by the constitution and governments had some leeway in initiating the procedure, framing the referendum question, setting the timeline for the vote.

The focus is not on the ‘anti-hegemonic’ (weakening the government’s position) versus ‘pro-hegemonic’ (strengthening the government’s position) effects of government-initiated referendums as discussed by Smith (1976) and Qvotrup (2000). Rather, the purposes of the article are a) to debunk the political risk calculation underpinning the government’s decision to sponsor a referendum in each of the cases considered through a systematic analysis of official documents, party manifestoes and speeches; and b) to shed light on a phenomenon that is currently shaping EU politics both at the member states’ and at the Union’s level, suggesting that the strategic use of referendums in contemporary Europe can be better understood if read in connection with the recent rise of populist movements and their influence on domestic and EU-level policymaking. Unsurprisingly, populist movements often demand referendums as they represent a way to appeal directly to the will of the ‘people’, bypassing the normal mechanisms of representative democracy (Plattner 2010: 88). On the other hand, referendums which in many cases artificially – and often problematically – reduce complex issues to binary choices naturally lend themselves to the resort to populism, meant as a dynamic ‘discoursive frame’ rather than a fixed attribute of certain actors (Bonikowski 2016: 14).

Read the full article here.