The EU and referendums

A new line of attack by eurosceptics came my way the other day: the claim that the EU ignored national democratic decisions when it came to the French and Dutch referendums on the proposed EU constitution, Ireland’s initial ‘No’ to the Lisbon treaty, and the Greek referendum of 2015. They claim that all these decisions were “overruled by the EU”!

In all three of these cases, if you look closer, the eurosceptic narrative turns out to be yet another of their attempts to conjure up a conspiracy on subjects where they hope many people are unfamiliar with the detail.

So what actually happened?

France and the Netherlands

Back in 2005, France and the Netherlands rejected a proposal to replace the EU treaties with a constitution. Since any treaty change or replacement needs the unanimous support of every country, the idea was dropped, even though most other countries had approved it. Instead, the existing treaties were kept and amended.


In 2008, Ireland initially rejected the Lisbon treaty in a referendum. The Irish parliament then set up a special committee to identify the main concerns of the Irish people, and to assess whether they could be addressed in a way that would respect the fact that every other member country had ratified the treaty. As a result of its work, the Irish government (together with the governments of all other member countries) agreed a list of clarifications and interpretations of the treaty, and wrote a set of guarantees for Ireland which were later enshrined in a protocol appended to the treaty.

The Irish government then decided to hold a new referendum, this time on the treaty together with the new guarantees. In this new referendum, the package was approved.

Eurosceptics don’t mention that the first referendum was decided by a narrow majority on a small turnout, whereas the second referendum approved the treaty by a comfortable majority on a high turnout!


In 2015, Greece held a referendum on the terms of a new bailout loan it wanted from the IMF and fellow eurozone countries. It rejected the initial terms, and new ones were agreed after further negotiations.

The new terms were not very different — hence the criticism. But the problem here was that Greece could not unilaterally vote in a referendum to commit taxpayers from other countries. These other countries and the IMF were reluctant to offer much more, as this was the third bailout loan for Greece, coming not long after the second loan was accompanied by a write-off of half of Greece’s debt. Some eurozone countries are poorer than Greece, and were particularly reluctant to commit after successive Greek governments had failed to tax rich oligarchs or cut the very high level of military expenditure seen by many as a pay-off to the army to stay out of politics.

In any case, the terms of Greece’s new loan could not be unilaterally imposed by either side — they had to be a negotiated agreement, approved by all involved.

Posted in:


  1. Dear Richard,
    thank you for your great article showing that leaving the EU is not inevitable after the referendum.

    Can you please propose an independent committee to research the advantages and disadvantages of leaving the EU to report to the nation, before Article 50 is launched.

    From where I am standing – it looks like there is nothing the British people can do to stop the wheels in motion propelling the government under May to leave the EU. This calamity, that began as a piece of Tory in-fighting, is likely to end with the disintegration of the U.K. and what is left, relegated to a struggling, isolated state, unless sensible people like you can collaborate in Parliament, to restore our position in Europe and so with the rest of the world.

    It will not be good for Britains to loose the cultural ties, science collaborations or 27 trading partners that begin 22 miles from our shore.

    The Conservative Party has not been held to account for the crime of trading everyone’s future for short term electioneering gains. The Brexit MPs have not been censured or exposed for lying, the government has not been held to account for pushing Brexit forward when there is no plan and the civil Service was instructed not to prepare one.

    Now is the time to act. The Labour Party, with other sensible MPs (SNP and Lib Dems, Greens and pro Remain Tories like Cameron), must now mount a significant campaign to safeguard the interests of the British people.

    People wanted to register their protest at the gross inequalities emerging in our society, not to make the gap between the rich and the poor get wider. Without Europe we will have no say in whether we accept treaties like TTIP and institutions like our Health Service – the very institution Brexit voters wanted to save – will be destroyed.

    Please continue to make your points loudly and force the Government to research what is in the country’s interest, before they take any action. This should have been done in the first place, but it is not too late. Help us to get ourselves back to where we were before the referendum, and save our and our children’s future.
    Best wishes,

  2. Dear Mr Corbett, We were given a simple in/out choice in the referendum and assured many times the result would be honoured. The majority of politicians are doing everything in their power to ensure we do not leave the EU. Please explain.

  3. Mr Corbett
    In each case the will of the people as voted for was initiated. that unfortunately is not being done in the case of Brexit. The democratic process must take us out of the EU and then campaign for another referendum if you wish with different conditions and protections, but first do as the people have ordered.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.