The Constitution Unit


Council of Europe agrees report on improving the conduct of referendums

22 January 2019

Council of Europe

Constitution Unit research has contributed to a Council of Europe decision this morning to update guidelines on the conduct of referendums.

By an overwhelming vote of 113 to 7, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe agreed a resolution that endorses a detailed report setting out how existing guidelines could be strengthened to reflect a changing political world. This report was prepared by British Conservative MP Dame Cheryl Gillan, working with the Unit’s Deputy Director, Dr Alan Renwick, as advisor. It draws extensively on Constitution Unit research, including research conducted for last year’s Independent Commission on Referendums and for our forthcoming report on how to improve information and discourse during election and referendum campaigns.

Recommendations that received attention and support in the debate in Strasbourg this morning include the following:

  • ‘where possible, referendums should be post-legislative; where this is not possible, a process should be set out requiring two referendums if the first referendum does not allow voters to choose between the options that are ultimately available’
  • ‘the prohibition for the authorities to use public funds for campaigning purposes should last throughout the campaign period’
  • ‘the responsibility to provide official information should be entrusted to an independent body, rather than the authorities; information should include, as a minimum, the referendum question and details of when and how to vote and, where possible, explanations and analysis of the proposals’.

The report highlights the need for referendum rules to respond to the rise of digital and especially social media, and it calls for further work to be done in this area.

Speakers also emphasised the importance of developing more deliberative approaches to democracy. In the resolution, the Assembly stated that it

  • ‘encourages all member States to explore opportunities for citizen deliberation both prior to referendums and during the campaign, for instance through citizens’ assemblies’ and
  • ‘invites the Venice Commission to highlight, in the revised Code, the role citizens’ assemblies and other similar mechanisms could play to ensure proper scrutiny of proposals before a referendum is called and improve the quality of information and debate during the referendum campaign.’

The proposals now go to the Venice Commission – the Council of Europe’s legal arm – which produced the original guidelines in 2007 and which has begun a comprehensive review.

Following the debate, Alan Renwick said:

‘This morning’s debate shows a desire to strengthen referendum practice across the 47 member states of the Council of Europe. It is particularly welcome to see such widespread enthusiasm for the kinds of reform that Constitution Unit research has recently helped to elucidate, such as mechanisms for promoting high-quality, balanced information and the use of citizens’ assemblies to deepen opportunities for public engagement. This resolution provides a strong foundation for updating the Venice Commission’s Code of Good Practice on Referendums.’