Referendum challenges to the EU's policy legitimacy – and how the EU responds

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Multiple ways of legitimating policy in a multi-level system of states are now creating cross-level challenges to EU policies. At the national level referendums are challenging EU policies by claiming that demands input in a direct democracy ballot have the highest legitimacy. By contrast, the EU legitimates its policies by the legal rationality of the policymaking process established by international treaties and confirmed by the representative credentials of the European Parliament and member state governments endorsing its actions in the European Council. Referendums are no longer held to confirm their national government’s decision to become an EU member state. There has been a paradigm shift since 2005; most votes in countries holding EU referendums have rejected policies approved by their elected representatives. The EU has successfully responded using strategies that involve legal coercion; instrumental calculations; secondary concessions; and avoidance of the risk of a referendum veto through differential integration. However, the legal legitimation of an EU policy without frustration by national referendums does not ensure policy effectiveness.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)207-225
Number of pages19
JournalJournal of European Public Policy
Issue number2
Early online date31 Jan 2018
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 31 Jan 2018


  • democracy policy
  • European Union
  • legitimacy
  • referendum


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