Debates about how to revive European democracy involve starkly contrasting views on direct democracy. For some, a greater use of direct democracy is vital to successful democratic innovation. For sceptics, the very concept is dubious; the direct democracy tools that have been used in recent years have proved profoundly damaging.

Getting European direct democracy right is fundamental. Currently, both support for direct democracy and resistance to it are growing. On the one hand, analysts routinely point to the increasingly evident shortcomings of representative democracy and to the burgeoning possibilities that digital technology gives citizens to exercise more direct forms of accountability. Enthusiasts see direct democracy as an inevitable and desirable pillar of an impending post-representative politics that moves channels of accountability and participation away from parliaments and political parties.

On the other hand, EU-related referenda in Denmark, Greece, Hungary, the Netherlands and the UK have clearly been polarizing experiences that have unduly simplified policy choices. They have failed in practice to engender high quality democratic deliberation. Particularly in the wake of the Brexit referendum, many writers have advocated more circumscribed forms of popular engagement and a tighter curtailment of direct democracy. As citizens make what experts consider ‘wrong’ populist-fuelled choices, sympathy has resurged for the classical concept of epistocracy or elite-mediated governance.1

Richard Youngs
Richard Youngs is a senior fellow in the Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program, based at Carnegie Europe. He works on EU foreign policy and on issues of international democracy.
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There is some merit to both sides of this argument. Many recent European referenda have indeed distorted accountability rather than improve democratic quality. Yet bottom-up citizen interest in more direct forms of political control has been growing for at least a decade and is a genie that cannot easily be put back into a bottle of elite-crafted, managerial democracy. Across Europe, direct democracy needs to be improved rather than suppressed.

Direct Democracy Evolving

Direct democracy has become more widespread around the world over the last decade.2 Polls suggest that demand for direct democracy is on the rise across Europe.3 Our ‘Towards a Citizens Union’ project has shown that people’s interest in exploring direct democracy has increased in the wake of the EU’s poly-crisis of recent years – although this trend is far from overwhelming and not present in all countries. In Germany, traditionally one of the countries most sceptical about national-level direct democracy, polls now show some support for its use. In June 2018, the new Italian coalition government came to power promising more direct democratic voting, in what may become the most significant test yet of whether direct democracy helps revive European democracy, undermines it or proves to be an over-hyped, unrealizable promise.

In terms of definitions, a standard distinction is between mandatory referenda, plebiscites called at governments’ behest and bottom-up citizens’ initiatives. A further distinction is that different varieties of citizen’s initiatives entail differing degrees of direct democracy. Some argue that petitions and citizen consultations are not full direct democracy where they do not lead to a competitive vote; they are sometimes referred to as ‘agenda initiatives’ that get issues onto government or parliamentary agendas without leading to a popular vote.4 In our project we adopted a broad definition to include these various different types of direct democracy and explore their competing merits.

An important change is underway in the balance between the different types of direct democracy. Until recently, debates were almost exclusively focused on governments calling referendums, especially on determinant and exceptional questions like EU accession. In recent years, this has been supplemented by a focus on the large number of citizens’ initiatives that have been introduced across Europe. Even if it is an exaggeration to talk of a groundswell of popular engagement, these initiatives have begun to inject direct democracy with a much more bottom-up, locally rooted ethos. Some of these emerging initiatives are ‘agenda initiatives’, some offer direct democratic votes.

Finland introduced enhanced citizens’ initiative provisions at the national level in 2012 and the municipal level in 2015, and Denmark followed suit by creating a similar tool in early 2018; these are widely used in both countries. The current Czech government is reforming the country’s restrictive provisions to make it easier for citizens to trigger national referenda. Similar changes have been made in 2018 in Austria to foster greater use of citizens’ instruments – which, apart from petitions, include randomly selected ‘wisdom councils’ at a local level.

In Romania, a push for less restrictive conditions for the use of direct democracy is one result of the on-going mass protests against corruption. Latvia’s online petitioning platform has become a widely emulated leader in the field. Estonia has similar provisions and is the country that has inserted such direct citizen engagement most notably into formal decision-making processes. A number of local-level referenda have been organised in Bulgaria in recent years.

The UK government introduced an e-petition provision in 2015. The UK government is also piloting online polls and citizen juries for local decision-making in six local councils. In recent years over 500 local referendums have been held in the UK on planning-related decisions. While Spain has seen debates over referendums become unhelpfully embroiled in the heated polarization of the Catalan conflict, municipalities across the country have pioneered direct engagement tools within local decision-making.

This momentum at the local level contrasts with the relative atrophy of the EU-level European Citizen’s Initiative (ECI). While the ECI is normally presented as the EU’s main direct democracy tool, it is a device for petitioning, not for direct popular votes.5 The virtues and shortcomings of the ECI have been exhaustively covered and are not the subject of this article; suffice it to say here that the ECI’s limited impact is one among many factors that have galvanized pressure for direct democracy at the national level. The growth of citizens’ initiatives at the national and local levels across Europe is in part related to the absence of well-developed and accessible forms of EU-level direct democratic accountability.

The utility of direct democracy in Europe is likely to hinge most crucially on the wave of new citizens’ initiatives. Many studies have focused on the case for EU-wide referenda, to be invoked through EU-level legal triggers.6 However, a focus on harnessing the faint stirrings of momentum that now exist at local level may prove more productive. While in many EU states concerns have grown over governments using referendums for political advantage, a more benign and citizen-led interest in democratic engagement may open the way to a more organic form of direct democracy across Europe.

Only For Populists?

A familiar critique is that citizens use referendums simply to gainsay and punish elites for reasons unrelated to the subject matter ostensibly under consideration. In recent years in Europe, EU-related referenda in the UK, the Netherlands, Denmark and elsewhere have unleashed such contrarian dynamics more than they have promoted better-informed and well-reasoned debate. Some experts even fear that national referendums are the instruments most likely to sink the European project.7

It is undoubtedly the case that anti-EU and populist parties have recently been the strongest advocates of direct democracy – even if most referendums have not been related to EU affairs. Italy’s Five Star Movement has been an emblematic innovator of online tools for democratic participation and voting. In Denmark, the rise of the Danish People’s Party has been the main factor in pushing politicians to widen the use of direct popular votes. In Germany it is the AfD that is questioning the country’s historically rooted distrust of referenda the most, while in Austria it is the Freedom Party that presses most strongly for direct democracy.

In the Czech Republic, populist parties explicitly focus on direct democracy as an absolute priority and one part of the far-right has even named itself the Freedom and Direct Democracy Party. The Polish Law and Order government has touted the use of referendums expressly as a means to help it fight back against EU criticism of rule of law infringements. In Romania, conservative groups pushed for a referendum to enshrine a ‘traditional’ definition of the family in the constitution, against EU liberal norms.

Our project charts how most European governments have put obstacles in the way of referendums proposed by citizens under constitutional procedures. Often, this seems to have backfired, adding to the list of factors fuelling populism. Two illustrative examples can be given. In Germany, the constitutional court has more than once generated public frustration by decreeing that European integration is still not deep enough to warrant a referendum. In Italy, the rate of failure of citizens’ initiatives is especially dramatic, indeed almost absolute. Then Prime Minister Mateo Renzi lost the 2016 referendum on constitutional change partly because many voters saw this is a cynical attempt to disadvantage the new populists. In both countries, for a variety of reasons the populist challenge has intensified, not abated.

This means that when EU-related referenda do take place, they tend to be framed around frustration with the Union and ‘the elite’ rather than enthusiasm for new ideas about European integration. A vicious circle thus forms: political parties and state institutions increasingly try to reach deals on EU issues that avoid having to call a referendum, each time deepening citizens’ feelings of democratic disenfranchisement and dissatisfaction with EU and national elites.

A key question is whether direct democracy can be ‘reclaimed’ from populists. There is no logical reason why calls for more direct democracy should be the preserve of anti-EU populists. Considering the fears about these emergent forces, it is easy to be sneering and dismissive of direct democracy. Elites can readily denigrate citizens as too ignorant to understand the complexities of EU issues. In practice, the evidence is mixed on this. The UK’s experience unquestionably provides some stark warnings. Yet the Danes are both the best informed of all European populations and the people most likely to vote critically in EU-related referenda; in Denmark negative voters come from the educated middle class, which means that it is too easy to dismiss referendums as simply a chance for uneducated voters to vent their spleen.

Participatory Fusion

These two trends – the burgeoning of local citizens’ initiatives and the populist surge – set the parameters for improving European direct democracy. The key link is with the quality of democratic participation.

Many experts make what is now the fairly widely-accepted point that direct and representative democracy should be seen as complementary. They lament that in practice most direct democracy initiatives try to circumvent not nurture representative channels. And they worry that direct democracy has worked at odds with good quality deliberative democracy.8

The fusing of the direct and the representative needs to be taken further: the imperative is to fashion a prudent use of direct democracy that flows from more meaningful citizen participation. More influential citizen participation is the catalyst needed to revive both indirect and direct democracy. Good direct democracy is not just about allowing citizens to trigger a referendum. It is about the quality and inclusiveness of the process that shadows direct popular votes. This is the qualitative change that is needed to get European direct democracy right.

The key relationship is not just direct-versus-indirect democracy, but between direct democracy and the incipient growth of citizen consultations or mini-publics. Many say that randomly selected groups of citizens are the key to reviving democracy as these allow for a deeper and more sustained form of democratic deliberation than one-off votes.9 In practice, they are often conceived as an alternative to high-level referendums. While there is much debate about high-profile cases of plebiscites held at governments’ behest, there are many more unreported examples of the inverse problem: governments refusing to hold votes on matters previously deliberated in detail in citizens assemblies – denials that disillusion citizens who have given up time to participate in such forums yet see no change. There could be more benefit to be had from a tighter tandem of citizen participation and other levels and forms of direct democratic voting.

To move beyond being a heavily instrumental wrecking-ball, direct democracy would need to meet certain participatory preconditions. The Irish referendums on same-sex marriage and abortion are normally cited as best practice in this sense. This is not to say that direct democracy should be suppressed simply to exclude EU-critical voices – these have as much right to be heard as any other positions. But it does mean that direct democracy should grow more organically out of current efforts across Europe to strengthen citizen participation around practical, day-to-day matters. Direct democracy is a responsibility that citizens need to learn incrementally – a lesson that emerges from the most successful case of Switzerland.

This would entail citizen participation initiatives leading into more decisive popular voting – the challenge is to develop these new instruments for petitions and consultations into a direct form of democracy with more bite. It would see a more tailored use of deliberative-participatory forums to prepare the ground for popular votes, as has happed in places like Oregon in the United States. Such developments would help structure direct democracy around citizen engagement in pursuit of positive and constructive policy options. They may also help to ensure that votes come from a more representative cross-section of the population. Our project reveals that referendum campaigns have so far failed to include all sections of the electorate equally.

The challenge is to fashion a direct democracy that stresses its positive and generic contribution to democratic process – and move away from it being used for predetermined political agendas, especially in EU debates. While anti-EU populists see direct democracy as the best way to break through the elite-consensus upheld through the indirect representative channels of current parliamentary procedures, it is the overall quality of democracy per se that is most likely to address populism’s underlying causes. Direct democracy needs to work as a means of incentivizing on-going and constructive citizen participation, not simply as an occasional means for giving national and EU elites a figurative kicking.10

Alongside participation, one other precondition is crucial to getting direct democracy right. Amidst Europe’s wave of populism, direct democracy must categorically distinguish itself from unrestrained majoritarianism. The use of direct democracy must not allow a majority to infringe core liberal protection of minorities – this is a key part of breaking the link with populism.11 Where this condition is met, direct democracy need be no more dangerous than representative democracy. Indeed, recent illiberal trends show that the protection of liberal rights is a challenge for representative democracy as much as direct democracy. In fact, where basic rights are ring-fenced, direct democracy tools can actually work in favour of minorities, as it allows them to get issues onto the agenda despite the existence of quasi-permanent majorities in representative institutions.12


Getting European direct democracy right will involve difficult balancing acts. Events in recent years have both strengthened the case for direct democracy and heightened its risks. The challenge of populism begs for several areas of democratic improvement, including more direct democracy. Yet it also renders more acute the danger that it could produce deeply disruptive and illiberal outcomes. Many citizens do seem to want more rather than less direct influence over decisions that affect their lives, even as many experts have pushed in the opposite direction of warning that EU integration must not be held ransom to the ‘passions of the rabble’.

Direct democracy is neither a panacea nor an unmitigated ill to be shunned. At most, it merits a modestly widened usage if used in the right way and if combined with other areas of democratic reform. Each dynamic – indirect representation, direct popular influence and deliberative citizen participation – has its rightful place in democratic renewal. On this basis, the policy dilemma will be whether a denser web of direct democracy at the local level could be extended upwards to have more constructive relevance for EU-level matters.

This publication is the conclusion of a book published as part of the Towards a Citizens’ Union project of the European Policy Institutes Network (EPIN), co-funded by the Erasmus+ Programme of the European Union.

This article is also part of the Reshaping European Democracy project, an initiative of Carnegie’s Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program and Carnegie Europe.



1A. C. Grayling, “Democracy and its Crisis,” Oneworld Publications, 2017; D. Runciman, “How Democracy Ends,” Profile Books, 2017

2D. Altmann, “Direct Democracy Worldwide,” Cambridge University Press, 2010; B. Kaufmann and J. Mathews, “Democracy doomsday prophets are missing this critical shift,” Washington Post, May 8, 2018

3Pew Research Center, ”Globally, Broad Support for Representative and Direct Democracy,” October 2017, pp. 22-4.

4International IDEA, “Direct Democracy: The International IDEA Handbook,” 2008, p.10.

5A. Leininger, “Direct Democracy in Europe: Potentials and Pitfalls,” Global Policy, May 2015, p. 5

6One good example of such a plea is F. Chevenal, “European Union and Direct Democracy: A Possible Combination?” BEUCitizen project, 2016

7I. Krastev, “After Europe,” University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017

8J. Lacey, “On Popular Votes and the Activities of Self-Government: The Case for Standard Direct Democracy,” paper presented at Participative and Deliberative Democracy conference, University of Westminster, September 5-7, 2018

9D. van Reybrouck, “Against elections: The Case for Democracy,” Random House UK, 2016; C. Chwalisz, “The People’s Verdict,” Rli, 2017

10The recommendations of the UK Independent Commission on Referendums that reported in July 2018 point in a similar direction. “Independent Commission on Referendums, Report of the Independent Commission on Referendums,” Constitution Unit, UCL, London, 2018

11A. Leininger, “Direct democracy in Europe: Potentials and Pitfalls,” Global Policy, May 2015, p. 16

12International IDEA, “ Direct Democracy: The International IDEA Handbook,” 2008, p. 23