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Are discretionary referendums on the EU becoming ‘politically obligatory?’

Aude Bicquelet-Lock, Helen J. Addison, (2018), «Are discretionary referendums on the EU becoming ‘politically obligatory?’», LSE, EUROPP, 15 Μαΐου

European governments have increasingly held referendums to decide matters associated with the EU since the first one was held in France in 1972, even though all EU states have representative democratic institutions and referendums entail considerable risk of defeat.

This surge in non-obligatory referendum pledges inspired some scholars to suggest that referendums are becoming ‘politically obligatory’ despite being formally discretionary. The essential feature of this argument is that politicians choose referendums not for instrumental reasons (such as fear of electoral backlash) but because of a normative belief that direct decisions are right under certain circumstances, such as if a treaty or a question is symbolically significant; if pressure groups and the public strongly favour a referendum; if opposition parties and some governing party members pressure the government to hold a referendum; and if there are precedents of prior referendums held on EU matters in the country. Arguing that the contextual pressures are persistent, this account implies that referendums on EU matters will be more frequently used, even when not in a government’s self-interest.

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