How to win EU referendums: lessons from the continent


Ece Özlem Atikcan, Assistant Professor in Political Science at Laval University, asks whether previous referendums on European Union treaties contain many lessons and insights into the upcoming referendum in the UK. This piece is part of the UCL European Institute’s first Brexit Divisions guest editor week on openDemocracy, from which a selection of the posts will also be published here.

Referendum campaigns matter more than election campaigns. Research has shown time and time again that people tend to change their minds during a referendum campaign, especially when the subject is an unfamiliar one, and the politicians line up in a non-traditional way. Voters then rely on campaign information to make sense of the referendum proposal, and the way political actors present the issue makes a difference.This is typically the case in referendums on the European Union (EU), and even more so when the referendum question concerns EU treaties, which are long and technical. Besides being unfamiliar with the EU’s unique terminology, European citizens lack direct interaction with EU institutions in their daily lives.

In addition, these campaigns often pitch the parties in the middle against those that are at the extremes of the political spectrum. The far left and the far right come together in their fight against the proposal, forming alliances never seen in regular elections. Referendum campaigns thus have an important role in helping citizens make sense of the European treaty at hand. In the referendums on Maastricht, Nice, Constitutional and Lisbon Treaties, campaign information has been shown to be the key to understanding the vote choice.

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