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How useful are national referenda to alleviate conflicts of sovereignty in the EU? An enquiry about the Greek 2015 referendum on the bail out.

Written by Dr Stella Ladi, Queen Mary, University of London, and Dr Amandine Crespy, Université Libre de Bruxelles

This article also appears on the Greece@LSE blog on 13 April 2020.


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Τhe debate about sovereignty has increasingly stressed how popular sovereignty has been affected by EU integration.  A relatively recent scholarship promoting demoicracy has tried to reconcile Europe wide democracy with popular sovereignty. Demoicratic scholars claim that, to work in a way which places popular sovereignty at the heart of democracy, the EU does not need one single unified demos. Rather, a European democracy could and should be grounded in the recognition of the plurality of the various European demoi. A European demoicracy can therefore be defined as a ‘union of peoples who govern together but not as one’ (Cheneval and Schimmelfenning 2013). From the perspective of sovereignty, this means that national sovereignties derived from the national demoi do not need to be merged, pooled, or shared, but that they need to be exerted jointly.  Referenda are widely regarded as the tool par excellence allowing the people’s direct involvement in national democracies. Yet, the research on EU related referenda has remained disconnected from the normative debates about popular sovereignty in the EU.

We ask to what extent national referenda on EU matters are effective in strengthening popular sovereignty.  We look not only at the formal or legal implications of referenda over EU matters, but at their actual political outcomes.  We see membership referenda and opt-out referenda as unilateral referenda because they concern an issue which can be settled by one people (or demos) alone. In contrast, we define referenda over treaty ratification and specific policy issues as embedded because they ask a question about an issue which cannot be decided by one people only. We propose that when dealing with issues which cannot be settled by a unilateral decision made by one people only, referenda are not an effective tool for enhancing popular sovereignty in the EU.

Against this background, the 2015 Greek referendum over the bail out is particularly interesting because it is located in a grey area between unilateral and embedded referenda since, behind the issue of the bail out terms, the issue of a possible Grexit from the Euro area loomed.

Our enquiry based on the specific literature on Greek politics, press reports and a series of 10 interviews conducted with decision makers in Athens and Brussels leads us to argue that the 2015 referendum was a tactical referendum and not a referendum aiming at enhancing popular sovereignty.  It cannot simply be seen as a unilateral type of referendum since a ‘no’ vote would affect the whole Eurozone. Although it was presented as a referendum over a specific policy issue (the bail-out agreement), EU leaders, the opposition and the left wing of SYRIZA among others conceived it as a Grexit referendum. Even if it didn’t eventually lead to Grexit, the ‘no’ vote brought the country closer than ever.

Most government officials have described the 2015 referendum as a negotiation tool and this was also the Prime Minister’s, Alexis Tsipras, line who argued that if the ‘No’ camp won he would be in a stronger position to negotiate a more favorable deal. Some government officials saw it as one more negotiation tool that would eventually lead to an agreement while others saw it as a nuclear weapon that could even lead to conflict with the European partners and even to Grexit. It was also described as a relief valve in order for a new balance to be achieved and the party to be able to move forward or as an emergency exit. Very few refer to the necessity for the people to express their will beyond the negotiations game and as a tool aiming to strengthen their democratic expression.

We can outline a number of conflicts of sovereignty, both in the national and European realm, which could not be alleviated by the referendum or were even triggered by it. A first conflict was the one between popular and parliamentary sovereignty. In the case of the 2015 referendum the Parliament was further weakened and the executive was strengthened.

From a European politics point of view, the 2015 Greek referendum has contributed to fuel conflicts of sovereignty rather than to the exercise of demoicratic joint sovereignties in several respects. A first aspect of the 2015 referendum drama features a conflict between the Greek state sovereignty and the EU’s supranational sovereignty in the realm of monetary policy through the ECB’s move to refuse to grant liquidity assistance, which led the government to announce a bank holiday and to impose capital controls in order to avoid massive capital outflow from the country. 

A further dimension regards an unprecedented clash between state sovereignties. The negotiations which took place over 17 hours at the Eurogroup meeting on 16 July 2015 will remain in history books as one of the most brutal episodes of inter-state confrontation in the EU. Instead of increasing A. Tsipras negotiating power vis-à-vis other European leaders, the referendum led him to confront a coalition of creditors, austerity minded countries, led by the inflexible German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble.

This clash of state sovereignties reflects further conflicts of popular and parliamentary sovereignty among the European demoi. As noted by Hodson (2016), ‘the Greek crisis is a test of multiple democracies and Eurozone members were understandably reluctant to commit taxpayers money abroad without economic assurances and appropriate forms of political accountability’ (p. 154).  A final aspect relates to the empowering of national parliaments in the EU polity. Many parliaments in the EU were granted the power to deliver their approval over the negotiations with Greece either ex ante or ex post or both, as for the German Bundestag. Thus, the legitimate expression of the Greek popular sovereignty was bound to clash with the legitimate expression of parliamentary sovereignty in other EU countries, therefore leaving national and European decision makers in a democratic deadlock.

To conclude, while demoicracy is an appealing normative perspective for the future of the EU, it needs to pay more attention to the multiple conflicts of sovereignty which are built into the EU’s political system. Searching for institutional devices to concretely implement the exercise of joint popular sovereignty in the EU, the Greek case illustrates in a paradigmatic way why unilateral national referenda cannot isolate their impact upon one public alone and seem to exacerbate rather than alleviate conflicts of sovereignty.


Full article: Crespy, A. and Ladi, S. (2019), “In the Name of ‘the People’? Popular Sovereignty and the 2015 Greek Referendum”, Journal of European Integration, 41. 7: 871-885.

Photo credit: Daniel Foster on Flickr




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