Does the EU ignore referendums?

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Referendums have played a controversial, yet important part in the history of the development of the EU. Most member states decided to hold a referendum to approve joining the EU, and would probably do so if they wanted to leave as well. New Treaties, as well, have been subject to approval by referendum. EU Treaties have been voted down on several occasions only for the EU to supposedly ignore the result and hold a yet more referendums until they get the ‘answer they want’. An in-depth look at these referendums, however, shows that many states got optouts, changes and clarifications to the Treaties before voting on them a second time, with their concerns addressed.

One of the more controversial and well known examples is that of Ireland’s votes on the Treaty of Lisbon. Ireland, at first, voted Lisbon down, only to be asked to vote again where it was subsequently approved. A clear case of the EU ignoring democracy? For one, the Treaty was approved by a higher margin than ‘No’ won before on a higher turnout, but that isn’t the main concern. The first time, Ireland voted down the Treaty for a variety of perhaps somewhat spurious reasons, but it was voted down nonetheless. In response, the European Council agreed on a Protocol to address the Irish citizens concerns in the Lisbon Treaty.

The Protocol:

  • Makes clear that the Treaty doesn’t affect the scope and applicability of the protection of the right to life, protection of the family, and the protection of rights in respect of education as provided by the Constitution of Ireland
  • Makes clear that Lisbon doesn’t make any change to the extent or operation of the competence of the EU in the field of taxation
  • Makes clear that Lisbon doesn’t affect Ireland’s traditional policy of military neutrality, and that it would be ultimately up to them to decide whether or not to take part in EU defence policies, including military operations. Also, it clarifies that it doesn’t provide for the creation of a European army, and it doesn’t affect the right of Ireland and others to determine the nature of its defence expenditure and the nature of its defence capabilities


This is a prime example of a Treaty being changed and clarified in response to the concerns people had when they voted it down. The fact that Irish people subsequently approved Lisbon by a higher margin on a higher turnout suggests that they understood that their concerns had been addressed, among other things, showing that the EU doesn’t ignore referendum results.

This can also be seen in response to the narrow rejection of the Maastricht Treaty by Denmark. In response, Denmark managed to secure optouts from the euro, the common security and defence policy, certain areas of justice and home affairs provisions and provisions of citizenship of the EU, most of which still apply today. The 2nd referendum approved the Treaty by a higher margin than it was rejected on a high turnout, suggesting that again, voters had understood that their concerns had been addressed and that the EU didn’t ignore the results of the original referendum.

A more recent example is the non-binding Dutch referendum on the Ukraine Association Agreement, which prevented its full ratification for over a year. On a low turnout just over the threshold, Dutch voters rejected the Agreement by a wide margin. A lot of reasons, again, were perhaps spurious in nature. In December 2016, the European Council agreed on a binding decision that makes clear that the agreement doesn’t give Ukraine candidate status, that it doesn’t require member states to defend Ukraine if attacked, that it doesn’t require member states to give free movement to live and work in EU member states, and that it doesn’t require additional financial support for Ukraine from the member states, among other things. Yet again, the EU has addressed the reasons the agreement was voted down to start with, leading to the ratification of the Agreement and its full application from September 1st 2017.

Referendums have played a key part in the history of the EU. Some have rejected Treaties or various agreements for various reasons, not all of which were unfounded. In response, the EU has typically worked to introduce binding decisions or amendments to the Treaties that seek to address the concerns of those who voted them down. When asked to vote a 2nd time by their national government, not the EU, they are voting on a different text to that they voted on before. Finally, it is up to the member states to decide whether or not to hold a referendum┬áto ratify treaties, not the EU. Therefore, it isn’t true that the EU ignores the results of referendums.