Research Handbook on the Politics of EU Law
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Research Handbook on the Politics of EU Law

Edited by Paul James Cardwell and Marie-Pierre Granger

Offering a wealth of thought-provoking insights, this topical Research Handbook analyses the interplay between the law and politics of the EU and examines the role of law and legal actors in European integration.
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Chapter 6: The law and politics of direct democracy in the EU

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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