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Fernando Mendez and Mario Mendez

Direct democracy has played a central role in the EU’s development since a referendum on EU matters was first deployed in the 1970s. Such referendums have come to be used more frequently and, in terms of delivering pro-EU outcomes, with an increasing failure rate. They are mainly held by states to determine whether they should join, or leave, the EU, or whether they should agree to revisions to the founding treaties, along with a diverse and growing array of other issues, most notably whether they should adopt the single currency, or other EU policies, or allow other states to join the EU, or agree to ‘extra-EU treaties’ which are closely connected to EU law. The EU’s referendum experience has been a subject of rapidly growing scholarly inquiry, but it remains to be seen whether a significant driver of this scholarship, the hitherto flourishing referendum practice, continues. The other dimension to the direct democracy landscape is the EU’s attempt to harness its legitimising potential through its very own direct democracy instrument, the European Citizens’ Initiative. In less than a decade it has given rise to a burgeoning body of practice and much scholarship by political scientists and legal scholars. The originally high expectations placed on this instrument were soon replaced by a narrative of the Commission having stifled it through its application of the legal admissibility test and inadequate follow-up to initiatives. It is, however, a contestable narrative and one that conceals the broader impact that the instrument is having, which more nuanced lines of scholarship are beginning to recognise. The narrative was nonetheless important in driving a reform agenda culminating in revisions that will make the instrument more user friendly and participatory, and potentially more effective.

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Fernando Mendez, Roman Zwicky and Daniel Kübler

Chapter 4 by Fernando Mendez, Roman Zwicky and Daniel Kübler deals with the European Citizens Initiative (ECI) from a comparative perspective. In this chapter the authors take stock of the European Union’s most recent democratic innovation, the ECI, with a view to evaluating its potential to live up to its democratic potential. In doing so they adopt a threefold strategy. First, they unpack the institutional features of the ECI to situate it within a broader universe of relatively well-understood mechanisms of direct democracy. Second, on the basis of an analysis of all ECI initiatives to date, they present some general trends regarding its use and functioning. The third, more speculative, analysis looks at possible institutional trajectories for the ECI based on our largely comparative analysis. Their findings suggest that the ECI is far from being unique and that some of the problems that surround its functioning are common to other systems. In addition, despite its novelty, they can already detect some general patterns as well as indirect effects on member states. Whether the instrument could ever fulfil its democratic potential, let alone empower European citizens, remains very much an open question. The evidence thus far presents a mixed picture.