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Consequences of National Referendums for the EU's Legitimacy

Richard Rose, not applicable

The European Union has relied for its legitimacy on the absolute value of European unity and the instrumental value of dealing effectively with interdependent problems of national security, politics and economics that no country can solve on its own. The EU's policies for the economy and immigration have produced a rise in votes for parties protesting against their government's acceptance of EU policies. There is also a rising demand for national referendums to mandate their national government to reject, in advance or to nullify after the fact, acceptance of EU policies on such issues as immigration. Since 2014 there have been national referendums in Greece, the Netherlands, Denmark, the UK, Hungary and Switzerland. Each reverses the EU definition of the competence of national governments as subsidiarity to the claims of the EU and asserts the superior authority of a national government when its citizens disagree with what is done in their name as European citizens subject to EU authority. National referendums enable people with dual citizenships to use their national citizenship to challenge EU policies adopted against their preferences. The 2016 UK referendum resolved this conflict by the UK acting legitimately by EU standards, invoking Article 50 to withdraw from the EU. However, most national referendums threaten something else: a challenge to EU legitimacy by a country that proposes to remain an EU member state. This paper will contrast older theories of how EU institutions legitimately represent states and their citizens with new challenges arising from the demand for and use of national referendums; explain why this demand is rising as an alternative to the electoral challenge of protest parties; and discuss the alternative strategies that the EU has adopted in response, and their consequences.



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