This blog is hosted on Ideas on EuropeIdeas on Europe Avatar

Latest

The Strategic Use of Government-Sponsored Referendums in Contemporary Europe

The recent wave of government-sponsored referendums in Europe should be read in light of the upsurge of populist movements, argues Cecilia Sottilotta. Based on her recent article in JCER, she analyses the way in which the governments of Greece, Britain, Hungary and Italy strategically used referendums between 2015-2016, and debunks the political risk calculations. 

The Union Jack waves in front of Big Ben © Melinda Nagy / Adobe Stock

Greece in 2015, Britain, Hungary and Italy in 2016: government-sponsored referendums seem to be ubiquitous in today’s European politics.

This phenomenon is not particularly new in itself, as governments have often used referendums as tools to achieve specific political goals in both democratic and non-democratic regimes. What is new about the recent wave of government-sponsored referendums in Europe is that they have taken place in a polarised political climate characterised by an upsurge of populist parties.

Greece

During the sovereign debt crisis in Europe, Greece was in the eye of the hurricane. On 27 June 2015, after five months of fruitless negotiations with the country’s creditors, recently elected Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras called a consultative referendum, asking the Greek people ‘to rule on the blackmailing ultimatum’ imposed by the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund – the so-called ‘Troika’.

Once it found itself cornered during the financial bailout negotiations, the Greek government tried to strengthen its hand, performing a political risk calculation where the expected payoff would have been a stronger mandate to negotiate more favourable terms with the Troika. However, while the government’s calculation about the domestic dimension of the referendum was correct, and the 5 July vote undeniably reinforced the Prime Minister in his anti-austerity stance, the calculation about the ‘external’ effects of the referendum was not equally accurate. In fact, the position of the other negotiators was hardened rather than softened, in the face of the Greek government’s tactic.

The UK

In the case of the 23 June 2016 referendum held in the UK, the calculation behind Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron’s decision to offer an EU membership referendum was multifaceted. First and foremost, the promise of an in/out EU plebiscite was directly aimed at attracting the votes of UK Independence Party (UKIP) supporters in the 2015 general election.

Second, Cameron tried to make the looming referendum a bargaining chip with the EU, and the spectre of Brexit a ‘credible threat’, to extract concessions from his European counterparts in his renegotiation of the terms of Britain’s EU membership. Third, holding the referendum and placing himself at the head of the ‘Remain’ campaign were also ways for the Prime Minister to attempt to maintain his party’s and cabinet’s unity. The tensions and discontent within the Conservative party were epitomised by the defection of two Tory MPs to UKIP in 2014 and their subsequent returns to Westminster in by-elections, as well as by backbench rebellions.

Hungary

In  the wake of the 2015 ‘migrant crisis’,  the Council of the European Union approved a plan by qualified majority to gradually relocate 120,000 refugees from frontline member states Italy and Greece to other member states. The Hungarian government, led by right-wing Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, defiantly opposed the relocation plan and eventually succeeded in removing Hungary de facto from the scheme. Nevertheless, on 24 February 2016, Orbán called a referendum on the ‘compulsory resettlement of non-Hungarian citizens in Hungary’.

From the government’s standpoint, the obvious political gain, hypothetically, from a favourable outcome in the referendum – that was, a victory of the ‘No’ vote with a turnout exceeding 50 per cent of the electorate – would have been a strengthening of the ruling party’s position both domestically (vis-à-vis the radical right Jobbik party) and on the EU stage. On the other hand, the likelihood of a negative outcome was low, considering the relatively high level of anti-immigration sentiment in Hungary and the remarkable campaign efforts put in place by the government. The most likely worst-case scenario for the government was instead the possibility, which in fact did materialise, that the minimum 50 per cent turnout threshold would not be reached.

Italy

In February 2014, former Florence Mayor Matteo Renzi was appointed as Italy’s prime minister and formed a new government whose agenda hinged on structural reforms, including a new electoral law and new constitutional architecture. Nevertheless, the final text of the constitutional reform bill did not obtain the two-thirds majority necessary to avoid the possibility of a confirmatory referendum. A request to hold such a referendum in 2016 was filed not only by opposition MPs, but also majority MPs, confirming Renzi’s intention, expressed on multiple occasions, to submit the reform to a popular vote in any case.

Adopting an attitude reminiscent of de Gaulle’s plebiscitary understanding of referendums, Renzi repeatedly vowed that he would resign and abandon politics for good if the constitutional reform was rejected, effectively turning the referendum into a plebiscite on his administration as a whole. A victory for the ‘Yes’ vote would have consolidated Renzi’s leadership of the divided Democratic Party. It would have also represented a formidable political victory for the ruling coalition over the populist Five Star Movement, whose attacks against the ‘establishment’ embodied by the Renzi government typically rested on the claim that it lacked popular legitimacy. On the other hand, it was clear from the beginning that a negative outcome would have cost Renzi his premiership – a scenario which eventually materialised, after 59.1 per cent of participating voters rejected the government-sponsored constitutional reform on a 68.5 per cent turnout.

Referendums in European States

Different as these countries and their political systems are, the attempts by their executives to use referendums strategically indeed bear some similarities – the most striking of which is the ubiquitous involvement of anti-establishment parties and the role of populism as a discursive frame. In fact, the 2015 referendum in Greece was brought about by the leader of the anti-establishment ruling party. In Britain, Hungary and Italy, the ruling mainstream parties instead adjusted their positions to cater to voters supporting anti-establishment parties. Against the backdrop of increasing distrust in mainstream political parties and the recent trend toward populist decision-making in EU member states, the interplay between anti-establishment politics and resorting to referendums in consolidated democracies deserves more attention by scholars and policymakers.


This article is based on the author’s article in the Journal of Contemporary European Studies (JCER) Vol 13 No 4

Please note that this article represents the views of the author(s) and not those of the UACES Graduate Forum, JCER or UACES.

Comments and Site Policy

Shortlink for this article: http://bit.ly/2lBCHxE


Cecilia Sottilotta | @csottilotta
American University of Rome (AUR)

Cecilia Emma Sottilotta is Assistant Professor of International Relations and Global Politics at the American University of Rome (AUR). Her research interests span themes such as political risk, including security issues, state-MNEs relations, trade, regionalism and development, and the current and future dynamics of European fiscal and monetary integration.


 

COMMENT

Recent Articles

Unless the EU Gets Its Act Together, It Will Lose a Trade War Against Both China and the US

Published on by | No Comments

Based on her prize-winning article in JCER on the Sino-European Solar Panel Dispute, Astrid Pepermans examines how the European Union (EU) risks losing a trade war which China and the US initiated. She argues that the EU must respond by remaining united and sticking to its values of quality and rule-based trade.  Lately, free traders all […]

European Studies Needs More Class Analysis

Published on by | Comments Off on European Studies Needs More Class Analysis
Image: Men in suits stand on a pile of gold coins looking down on disadvantaged citizens

Inspired by the growing debate on critical approaches to European Studies, Vladimir Bortun adds his own perspective. He argues for class analysis which not only asks how to fix the EU’s specific problems but which takes a more holistic approach. Is the EU in its current form even worth fixing or do we need to […]

‘Brexit’ and Anti-Discrimination Law in Northern Ireland

Published on by | Comments Off on ‘Brexit’ and Anti-Discrimination Law in Northern Ireland
Stormont buildings

Publication resulting from the UACES 2017 PhD and ECR Conference The UK’s withdrawal from the European Union is bound to pose unique challenges for Northern Ireland, writes Clare Rice. Drawing on her research on anti-discrimination law in the region, she outlines the potential impact on the legal framework for equality and cross-community relations. The potential impact […]

Critical European Studies Need More Than Foucault

Published on by | Comments Off on Critical European Studies Need More Than Foucault

How can we create spaces for critical discussion about the European Union? Vanessa Bilancetti writes in response to Rachael Dickson Hillyard’s article on alternative approaches to EU Studies. Through her own research on institutional responses to the economic crisis, Vanessa Bilancetti identifies dissenting voices that can enrich an ongoing debate. I have read with interest […]

Measuring the Impact of EU Accession on Potential Candidate Country Parliaments

Published on by | 1 Comment

Publication resulting from the UACES 2017 PhD and ECR Conference The impact of an EU membership perspective on the national parliament of potential candidate countries is an important yet underexplored subject, writes Blerim Vela. Outlining some of the elements of his research, he suggests that the executive-legislature relationship and strength of the media and civil society […]

Why the EU Needs ‘De-crisising’

Published on by | Comments Off on Why the EU Needs ‘De-crisising’

Publication resulting from the UACES 2017 PhD and ECR Conference The usage of the term ‘crisis’ when discussing the EU’s current challenges has become widespread in media reporting, writes Max Steuer. Drawing from his analysis of quality newspapers in several Visegrad countries, where calls for the EU to address problems have often been accompanied by opposition […]

Taking an Alternative Approach to Doing EU Studies: Using Foucault’s Thinking to Better Understand the EU and Migration

Published on by | 1 Comment

Publication resulting from the UACES 2017 PhD and ECR Conference The journey of connecting your research interests and questions as a PhD student with an effective means of exploring them can sometimes be challenging, writes Rachael Dickson Hillyard. Reflecting on her research critically analysing EU narratives on good governance and rights-based policies, she argues that it […]

The Spectre of the ‘Welfare Tourist’ within the Judgements of the CJEU

Published on by | Comments Off on The Spectre of the ‘Welfare Tourist’ within the Judgements of the CJEU

Publication resulting from the UACES 2017 PhD and ECR Conference Although little evidence supports the existence of welfare tourism, the EU’s Court of Justice has increasingly adopted this economic rationale in its rulings, writes Charles O’Sullivan. He argues that the court, having departed from its original legal test for social assistance claims in several decisions, is […]

Harmful Cyber Operations in the EU: Implementing the NIS Directive into the UK Legal System

Published on by | Comments Off on Harmful Cyber Operations in the EU: Implementing the NIS Directive into the UK Legal System

Publication resulting from the UACES 2017 PhD and ECR Conference The prevalence of cybersecurity threats against state infrastructure demonstrates the need for an effective European and national response, writes Eva Saeva. Focusing on the UK, she argues that, while legal measures are important, the fast-changing nature of the situation means that other avenues, such as public-private cooperation, […]

Why Brexit’s Impact on EU Foreign Policy Might Remain Limited

Published on by | Comments Off on Why Brexit’s Impact on EU Foreign Policy Might Remain Limited

Publication resulting from the UACES 2017 PhD and ECR Conference While last year’s Brexit vote marked a watershed moment for the European Union, its impact on EU foreign policy might remain limited, writes Ragnar Weilandt. He argues that the UK’s dual role as a provider of capabilities and occasional driver of policy on the one hand, and […]

UACES and Ideas on Europe do not take responsibility for opinions expressed in articles on blogs hosted on Ideas on Europe. All opinions are those of the contributing authors.