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Rejection by Referendum: a New Expression of Discontent in the EU

by Maarten Hillebrandt, Departments of History and Sociology, University of Warwick [1]



During the past sixteen years, several EU proposals have been defeated in national referendums. Beginning with the Danish rejection of the Maastricht Treaty and ending with the most recent rejection of the Lisbon Treaty by Irish voters, this article establishes such rejections as a phenomenon that epitomises a new expression of popular discontent. Allowing the phenomenon to be seen as a trend brings the advantage of seeing it as a structural problem of the EU: something which continually returns and which sparks specific categories of political reactions. Through an exploration of reactions to defeated referendums, this article seeks to highlight a discursive and political shortcoming in the EU’s periodical institutional crises. It suggests a way out of this vicious circle through reflection and deliberation, rather than through isolating, ignoring, or avoiding referendums on EU matters.

KEYWORDS: Referendums, European Union reform, social discontent.



In June 2008 the European project faced another setback in a trail of defeated referendums that started with the Danish rejection of the Maastricht Treaty in 1992. On this occasion, Irish voters in a referendum rejected the Lisbon Treaty which had already been signed by the member states of the European Union. Although Ireland with its 4.4 million inhabitants constitutes less than 1 per cent of the European Union’s citizenry, and although the referendum was defeated by only a narrow margin, the event may be seen as part of a larger pattern of periodic institutional ‘crises’ that have increasingly come to preoccupy the European Union’s institutions. In this article, we shall examine the phenomenon of rejection through referendums and its relation to politics in the context of the European project. We shall first look at the Maastricht Treaty and the various political discourses of justification that rendered its advent possible. The next section explores an emerging trend in European politics: institutional deadlock caused by referendums. The article will then move on to analyse the various reactions that such ‘No’ votes have provoked. Eventually, it will be argued that an undesirable dynamic has come into existence which fails to properly engage the European Union’s citizens. It is held that the cycle of continually returning crises can only be broken if integrationists come to take referendums and their outcomes seriously. Reflection and deliberation, therefore, instead of a luxury, have become an imperative.



In 1992, the European Community (EC) evolved into the European Union (EU) with the signing of the Maastricht Treaty. Politically, this was an ambitious step, mainly because of its introduction of a supranational – European – citizenship, that sought to ‘reflect, and to a limited extent to encourage, a direct relationship between citizens and the Union’ (Bellamy and Warleigh, 2001: 8). To some extent, therefore, the EU came to strive to be not only a co-operative platform of member state governments, but also, more directly, of these governments’ citizens. The Maastricht Treaty directly substantiated the content of European citizenship; among other things, it conferred upon citizens of the EU the right to unchecked mobility and participation in municipal elections anywhere in its territories, as well as extended diplomatic provisions outside of its territories (Shore and Black, 1994: 281-85).

The newly acquired dynamism that the European project demonstrated began in the 1990s. An obvious piece of evidence of this dynamism, the Treaty on European Union (TEU), as the Maastricht Treaty was formally known, sparked off various reactions. Before we examine the significance of the phenomenon of rejection through referendums, which is the main intent of this article, we must first briefly look at the way in which scholars and politicians sympathetic with the European project have sought a rationale for EU-style integration in changing historical circumstances. After all, although the TEU undoubtedly meant a strengthening of supranational European cooperation, it was received with enthusiasm by many Europeans, many of them national politicians.

For most politicians, national and European alike (a sociological distinction is as of yet hard to make) the coming of the TEU was regarded as no more than a logical step to lead the European project into a new decade with new, post-communist challenges (Judt, 1997; Weiler, 2005). Today, it is believed that EU citizenship can provide the ‘social Europe’ to ‘ take on globalisation’ (Europa, 2008). The European Commission, too, endorses this view in word and deed. In a speech the Commission’s president Barroso gave to the European parliament in late 2007 in defence of the Lisbon Treaty, he argued that ‘it is more obvious than ever that even the greatest powers of Europe cannot alone tackle the challenges of globalisation. It is obvious that more than ever we need a strong European Union’ (European Parliament (EP), 2007).

Proponents of another strand of thought, which we describe here as the post-national approach, see EU citizenship as a tool for the advancement of newly emerging social interest groups characteristic of today’s globalised world. Kostakopoulou, for example, has argued for a type of citizenship that transcends national borders and enables individuals to come together in continuously changing social formations. Such a type of citizenship is to function as an ongoing European civic dialogue that represents a multitude of overlapping identities as much as it provides for the creation of new ones (1998: 160). This view raises sanguine expectations: the European project is to be seen as a pragmatic and enabling social tool at the service of ‘local initiatives aimed at solving specific implementation problems’ deriving from the globalised economy (Stahl, 2008: 92). Moreover, at the level of international relations, a stronger and more integrated EU is believed to serve as an instrument of robust representation with real political influence. In an interview given to the author in 2008, Lord Brittan, who was a former EU Commissioner between 1989 and 1999, simply argued that

it’s possible to be quite enthusiastic about European policy, about wanting integration, to regard that as very important, and very necessary, for rather pragmatic reasons, without feeling an emotional European identity (Lord Brittan, 20 February 2008, unpublished interview transcript).

From the above an image emerges of various rationales for the ongoing drive towards further European integration. Optimism about the European project ranges between global realism and global idealism, and often combines the two in a narrative of positive ‘European values’ (see, for example, Habermas, 1994; Stahl, 2008; Wallerstein, 1991). After all, the dominant historiographical current holds that the EU is the present-day embodiment of a European success story that once and for all rendered a return to war on the continent impossible and brought member states a ‘golden half century’ of prosperity (Milward, 1995; Van Ham, 2001). It is thus that certain politicians (not without a sense of mission) refer to the EU as a ‘building under construction’, or more commonly, as a bus that needs to keep going (Garton Ash, 1997). The latter is a popular metaphor frequently adopted by certain media commentators (for example, see Image 1).


Image 1. The European project in a bus metaphor. From the Economist, 25 May 2006. Title of the article was “A venture at a standstill”. Reproduced with permission of the Economist.

Image 1: The European project in a bus metaphor. From the Economist, 25 May 2006. Title of the article was “A venture at a standstill”. (Reproduced with permission of the Economist).



The 1990s simultaneously saw another phenomenon arising, which may in short be called the expression of discontent through referendums. An overview of defeated referendums is provided in Table 1. Twenty years before Maastricht, the Norwegian government had already decided to abandon its wish to join the EC when in 1972 its citizens rejected the idea by referendum, with 53.5 per cent of voters voting against. While providing an early example of a challenge to European integration as it was taking place, the Norwegian referendum was ultimately harmless as it was a popular expression from outside, rather than within.




Rejection %

Turnout %






EC membership





Maastricht Treaty





EU membership





Introduction euro





Nice Treaty





Introduction euro





Constitutional Treaty





Constitutional Treaty





Lisbon Treaty

Table 1: Overview of rejected referendums, 1972-2008. Non-member state referendums are italicised.

The sense of awe and lack of understanding was rather larger when the outcome of the Maastricht Treaty was received with little enthusiasm by the brand new European citizenry. The political elite opined that the people had disappointed (Weiler, 2005: 238). In Denmark, one of three countries to bring the Treaty to the vote through a referendum, it was eventually rejected in June 1992 and only accepted later that year when several opt-outs were included. In France, traditionally perceived to be a driving force of European integration, the Treaty was approved by only a 51.1 per cent majority in a plebiscite held in September of the same year. In 1994, Norway again rejected membership in a new referendum, thereby limiting the government to close economic cooperation. Binzer Hobolt (2007) has used this second Norwegian referendum as a ‘critical test’ in an analysis of a heuristics approach to voter competence (Figure 1). She argues that if voting in a referendum is seen as a task that needs to be competently fulfilled, adequate provision of information through ‘ elite cues’ from sources such as high-profile experts and political party lines may lead to outcomes relatively similar to situations of full information and full knowledge, i.e. competent voting (177). In the particular case of Norway, she points out that voter positioning was well facilitated, in spite of a negative outcome. It may, however, be the case that the quality of elite cues will be poor in situations where political parties take an ill-defined or uncritical position in the debate. This, in turn, may lead to the defection from traditional decision-making grids among voters. Noting that the various centrist parties representing around 80 per cent of the European national electorates are all broadly pro-European, a voter repositioning on European issues has thus been seen to correlate with anti-establishment sentiments and higher rates of overall political scepticism (Binzer Hobolt, 2007: 163; Lubbers, 2008: 65). This effect is likely to be enhanced by the fact that it is typically the national political establishment which organises the referendums and then fails to provide a balanced justification in the eyes of sceptical and defensive voters (Harmsen, 2005).


Figure 1: a heuristics approach to referendum voting

Figure 1: A heuristics approach to referendum voting. Shortcuts to competent decision taking are rendered possible through the provision of elite cues. The quality of these cues determines the degree of information intake and, eventually, competence of provided vote.
[Full-size version]

The new round of structural readjustment and institutional innovation which brought new referendums confirms this pattern. Whereas it had before accepted the amendments made through the Amsterdam Treaty, in 2001, the Irish voters rejected the Treaty of Nice. Again, renegotiation was the result, and it was subsequently adopted. The new European currency, the euro, was first rejected in Denmark in 2000 and later in 2003 in Sweden, in both cases by small margins but with high turnout rates. In other countries, the euro was introduced without previous consultation. However, it was the 2005 Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe (TCE) that presented the EU with the first formidable challenge to its integrationist drive. This was mainly due to the fact that it was rejected by two pro-integrationist and founding countries, France (54.7 per cent) and the Netherlands (61.5 per cent), the former being, moreover, a sizeable political power in the EU. In both countries, a strong approval rate had been polled immediately before the respective referendums, but public opinion turned towards a ‘No’ vote when it became equated with an overconfident and alienated political establishment (Marthaler, 2005; Harmsen, 2005; Lubbers, 2008). Confusion and a ‘too far, too fast’ sentiment predominated among wide sections of voters (Harmsen, 2005). Long-term concerns with the nature and direction of the European project were key arguments cited by the ‘No’ camp, as is illustrated by the ‘No’ poster depicted in Image 2.


Image 2: In France, the Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe was defeated by narrow margin in a referendum.

Image 2: In France, the Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe was defeated by narrow margin in a referendum. (Reproduced with permission of Andrew Phelps,

This reading of the French and Dutch referendums is significant, since it suggests a shift in public opinion towards greater Euro-scepticism. By Euro-scepticism in this context, we understand a decline of positive inclination towards the European project based on heuristic knowledge about the EU (cf. Binzer Hobolt, 2007: 155; Lubbers, 2008: 65). In the direct aftermath, the Economist spoke of a shock that was amplified by the second rejection and from which the EU might take years to recover (Economist, 2006). The positive referendum outcomes of Spain and Luxembourg could do little to downplay this electoral blow. Gisela Stuart, a British Labour MP who helped to draft the document, in an interview with the author recollected her sense of shock at the time, which prompted her to reposition herself and to become a staunch advocate of a British referendum in the ratification process of the Lisbon Treaty.

A huge shock and eye-opener for me were […] Sweden’s decision to stay out of the Euro-zone and the Dutch ‘No’ in the referendum. The French ‘No’ was to some extent understandable, but the Dutch! (Gisela Stuart, 18 January 2008, unpublished interview transcript)

Stuart argued that the French and Dutch referendums clashed with the European Commission’s desired outcome. In her opinion, the 2002 Convention on the Future of Europe had overstretched its assigned task. Instead of being merely reflective and deliberative, it went ahead in a great hurry to produce the TCE. She commented wryly: ‘The French and Dutch "no" were in fact accidents of history which changed everything’.

Although commentators have not failed to highlight the significance of the double ‘No’ vote, it is yet unclear what it has exactly changed, or what change it was supposed to bring. An illustrative result of this indecisive attitude and unwillingness to confront it came in the form of the most recent referendum in Ireland, in which 53.4 per cent of voters rejected the TCE’s replacement, the Lisbon Treaty. Significantly, in this referendum young voter cohorts had rates of ‘No’ votes far above the overall average, with the likelihood of a ‘Yes’ vote increasing per age cohort (Holmes, 2008: 6). This appears to point at a decrease in credibility of justifications of current European integration trends.



Altogether, the above provides enough evidence to speak of a newly emerged trend of periodical popular revolt through referendums. Increasingly, such ‘No’ votes have sparked off a number of political reactions, to which we shall now turn our attention. Before we do so, however, it is important to note that such a categorisation of reactions must be seen as ideal-typical (i.e. as crystallisations of rhetorical forms), and that different political reactions often combine and/or interact.

In the first place, there has been what may be called a ‘missing-the-bus-threat’. Frequently, voters have been told that the EU cannot permit itself to be held up by hesitant member states. An element of this line of thought could be observed when the TCE was rejected in France and the Netherlands. A multi-speed European project was then proposed to allow the more progressive member states to move on (Economist, 2006; cf. Marginson and Sisson, 2004, on multi-speed economic integration). More recently, the former German Minister of Foreign Affairs Joschka Fischer has argued that ‘while the world around Europe continues to develop with Formula-1 speed, the Europeans have for themselves decided a snail pace’ (Fischer 2008a, author’s translation). In a similar vein, Germany’s current Minister of Foreign Affairs Frank-Walter Steinmeier argued after Ireland’s rejection through referendum that ‘this is a critical time that we are in, the fate of the Lisbon treaty is uncertain. That’s why we are under time pressure’ (Traynor, 2008).

As we have already briefly noted, this missing-the-bus-attitude has often been accompanied by a ‘repair’ or ‘quick fix attitude’: after amendments and further negotiations the Danes accepted the Maastricht Treaty, and, similarly, the Irish accepted the Nice Treaty after a second vote. Nevertheless, the quick fix method now appears to become decreasingly an option, enhancing an urgent sense of existential crisis. This is primarily due to a rift that has been growing between the Euro-sceptic and the integrationist camp over the future of the EU, causing a mixture of caution and tension on the topic of institutional reform (De Vries, 2006; Rogowski and Turner, 2006). On the one hand, this has popularised Euro-sceptic parties on both left and the right side of the spectrum, while on the other, it has sparked off an elitist fear of referendums. In the Netherlands, for example, Frits Bolkestein, former EU Commissioner for the Internal Market and Fiscal Affairs, has accused the Dutch government of avoiding another ‘loss of face’ by staying away from a second referendum, this time on the Lisbon Treaty (Bolkestein, 2007). Similarly, the United Kingdom and France, both possible ‘swing states’ decided not to hold a plebiscite.

The elitist attitude toward the relation between the nation state and European integration has increasingly come under fire. De Vries, for example, has argued that politicians thinking such subjects too complex or boring for their voters ‘are failing their citizens’ (2006: 2). By seeing a push toward European integration as the logical exponent of globalised rationalisation and the needs of capitalist society, politicians appear to argue a deterministic case for further integration EU-style, thereby automatically placing the rejections through referendum that have taken place thus far in the ‘wrong camp’. It is evident that they thereby risk alienating Europeans. Support levels, even simply for EU membership have been polled at around 50 per cent EU-wide, while the daily bureaucratic organisation of the EU is perceived with low levels of trust (Economist, 2006; De Nederlandse Bank, 2006: 52). Bolkestein has furthermore complained that in the run-up to the 2005 referendum in the Netherlands, scandalous untruths were told to win over voters, among them that ‘in case of a rejection, economically, the lights would go out’ (2007, author’s translation).

While an elitist/technocratic retreat from plebiscites obviously does not solve the problems of the legitimacy gap, at the same time, neither do EU citizens provide evidence of real interest in Union affairs. From a recent poll conducted in all twenty-seven member states, it emerged that 68 per cent of those polled were more or less uninformed about their rights as EU citizens (Eurobarometer, 2008: 4). In an exercise of eight questions that had to be identified as true or false, only 1 per cent of respondents answered all questions correctly (Eurobarometer, 2008: 9). 18 per cent of those interviewed believed that EU citizenship had to be applied for, while another 17 per cent thought it was optional (Eurobarometer, 2008: 4).

Yet, the majority of rejecting referendums (as well as many accepting referendums in recent years) have seen very narrow margins, which feeds into the thesis that reform-related subjects are indeed hotly contested. This contestation alone means a loss of ground for the European project, in which throughout the earlier period the goodwill of citizens was more or less taken for granted (Weiler, 2005). An important reason for the loss of goodwill in member states with higher welfare levels is the EU’s perceived encroachment upon national (socio-economic) policy. It has thus been held that ‘preferences about the appropriate governing level for social policy are strongly related to the current levels of social protection’ (Ray, 2001: 56). However, many more reasons for discontent may exist, and (a lack of) enthusiasm about the EU can by no means be simply reduced to matters of social welfare. A poll recently conducted in Turkey illustrates this. Citizens of a potential future member state with welfare levels below the EU average, Turks trust EU institutions substantially less than their own, while their overall positive image of the EU has gone down from 55 to 53 per cent over the past year (Eurobarometer, 2007: 2).

Threats, ‘quick fixes’, retreats in either nationalist populism or political elitism are among the most common types of responses that the past sixteen years have provided. Regrettably, due to their failure to bring back real dynamism into the European project, they have increasingly made way for another, ‘corporate’ type of discourse that intends on ‘selling’ Europe and the ‘European values’ of the EU as a brand (Magistro, 2007: 52). In a thought-provoking analysis, Magistro argues that the European identity in this discourse becomes merely a ‘public good’ that needs to be ‘consumed’ by the European citizenry. Possible objections or contestations, then, are to be smoothed over through the subliminal methods that are associated with advertisement (2007: 53).

Apart from the obvious ethical implications of such a response toward the discontent displayed in aforementioned referendums, its payoff seems questionable, and many politicians believe that citizens simply ‘won’t buy into it’. Moreover, forms of caution and scepticism toward European integration are increasingly organised, better articulated, and observable including along the political spectrum and among political elites. While Bolkestein argues that ‘voters cannot be deceived too often' (2007:11), the Czech Republic’ s president Vaclav Klaus declared the Lisbon Treaty dead immediately after its rejection in the Irish plebiscite (Traynor, 2008). Popular movements, too, are becoming better organised in their attack on the deliberation gap. For the Lisbon Treaty, for example, Democracy International has been working across the political spectrum to secure referendums in as many member states as possible (European Referendum Campaign, 2008). Thus far, responses to the trend of discontent have fallen short on providing real change. It seems clear that – to cite Zielonka – ‘the Union cannot just hope and pray that the identity and democracy problems will somehow go away’ (cited in Elbe, 2003: 79). If it wants to maintain public support and a democratic image, the European project will thus not be able to move forward without the necessary reflection and deliberation.



Even before the EU’s ‘reform impasse’, Schmitter, in an article on the EU’s alleged democracy deficit, argued for a prolonged period of institutional deliberation. Two assemblies would regularly convene and consult with the European populations on a document to be drafted concerning the future institutional structure of the European project. After a period that should, as Schmitter suggested, take several years, those two proposals could be brought to an EU-wide referendum (1999: 138-44).

Though by all appearances an ambitious and radical proposal, Schmitter thus foretold much that subsequently went wrong. Nearly ten years on, the EU finds itself accused of being technocratic, undemocratic and lacking social legitimacy. For the purpose of this article, it is not necessary to go into a detailed analysis of the sources of popular discontent. Primarily, we are concerned here with the mere presence of this discontent and with its responses which are inadequate and, potentially, harmful. Dutch and French ‘No’ voters were accused of not understanding what they were voting on, while wishes are expressed that the Irish electorate may find itself isolated (Economist, 2006; Fischer, 2008b). Rather than engaging with ‘No’ voters in a serious debate on the future of Europe, it has become customary to accuse Euro-sceptics of being nationalists, the ‘very word [today sounding] pejorative’ (Weiler, 2005: 327), or by ‘selling’ the EU as a chosen path that it is impossible to deviate from. In fact, however, ‘nobody agrees about the reasons the French and Dutch said no’ in 2005 (Economist, 2006), while it appears that rather than trying to understand the outcome of their plebscites, many politicians prefer to isolate them.

Yet, the choice not to define Europe in terms of values clearly presents an absurd, even impossible situation, since the EU has by now become an increasingly active polity that takes distinct political positions. As Weiler has pointed out, enthusiasm about European integration soon dies off when the moral imperative disappears: ‘it’s politics as usual with the frustrating twist that in Europe you can’t throw the scoundrels out at election time’ (2005: 329). When political decisions such as the ‘shape of the New Europe’ (the title of a publication edited by Rogowski and Turner, 2006) are left to technocrats, the exercise of responsible citizenship becomes untenable (Schutz, 1964). Citizens’ attitudes today reveal two strong tendencies. Firstly, more than before, support for the EU can no longer be taken for granted (Elbe, 2003: 86). Secondly, the nation-state remains perceived as the stable framework, and Europe as a working area (De Nederlandse Bank, 2006: 50). If the EU fails to work with these conditions to come to a solution, its future will stand on poor foundations.



The Maastricht Treaty that was concluded in 1992 signalled an existential reconfiguration for the European project. It reaffirmed the member-state governments’ commitment to ongoing integration with a fervour and enthusiasm that was based on a historical justification and ‘sense of mission’ for Europe. Previously, ‘ Europeanness’ was regarded as a badge to wear proudly as long as it did not interfere too much with daily affairs. After Maastricht, the newly created European citizen was now confronted by a system that sought to engage more directly with him or her, and to expand its political significance and legitimacy. It was therefore not long before referendums on matters concerning the EU came to serve a new purpose. In a European order that is perceived as intellectualistic and distant, a ‘Brussels governing by decree’, referendums have become a potential popular emergency brake. After a number of rejections through referendums, we may now speak of a new trend in the expression of social discontent.

Among other issues, much work still needs to be done on information spreading. As citizens of a highly developed part of the world, EU citizens continue to be curiously ignorant about their institutions. If Euro-optimists are convinced of the imperative of further European integration, their task starts there. Unfortunately, reactions so far have generally been far less constructive. Instead of trying to convince ‘No’ voters, Euro-optimistic politicians have threatened, bullied, and ignored opponents of previous referendums. Rejected proposals have frequently been returned to the vote with only marginal adjustments. More worryingly, referendums may be denied for fear of further ‘national loss of face’, and a corporate order of discourse is resorted to, which tries to sell European integration subliminally, rather than through the confrontation of debate. These are politically unhealthy dynamics which are, moreover, meeting increasingly articulate and organised protest. Ahead of their troops, European integrationists have lost part of their citizens’ support. It is imperative that they retrace their steps to deliberate, rather than to continue to drag the European citizenry through another controversial reform.




Image 1: The European project in a bus metaphor. From the Economist, 25 May 2006. Title of the article was “A venture at a standstill”. (Reproduced with permission of the Economist).

Image 2: ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ vote posters in France, ahead of the referendum on the Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe. (Reproduced with permission of Andrew Phelps,

Figure 1: A heuristics approach to referendum voting.

Table 1: Overview of rejected referendums, 1972-2008.



[1] Maarten Hillebrandt studied History and Sociology at the University of Warwick and is currently reading for a Masters in Social Policy and Organisation Studies at the University of Utrecht, the Netherlands.



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