The Initiative & Referendum Institute Europe (IRI Europe)Back

The Initiative & Referendum Institute Europe (IRI Europe) is an important European research and educational institute founded in 2001 to promote direct democracy in the form of initatives and referendums. According to IRI Europe, its mission is "to develop insight into the theory and practice of I&R among politicians, the media, NGOs, academics and the public throughout Europe". The website of IRI Europe at has, among other information, factsheets on the global history of initiatives and referendums, a comprehensive list of referendums on European integration, a discussion of European opinion polls on the desirability of conducting referendums, and a collection of quotes of European politicians and philosophers on direct democracy.
The following article retrieved from the IRI Europe website on 4 December 2004, entitled "Quick facts on the global history of I&R" written by Bruno Kaufmann gives a good summary of the development of referendums.
The first constitutional referendum took place in North America back in 1639. A few thousands citizens accepted in this first ballot vote the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut. Later, also the people of Massachussetts and New Hampshire could decide directly on their constitutions. The very idea of this new form of democracy was already established by the famous Mayflowertreaty in 1620, where the fundaments of the American democracy were lined out.
In Europe, Geneva citizen Jean Jacques Rousseau wrote the Social Contract, where he described popular sovereignity as a counter weight to the absolute power of kings and emperors. This inspired the revolutionaries of 1793 to introduce a new constitutions with - for the very first time in history - comprehensive I&R, including the initiative right for the citizens and the obligatory referendum in constitutional matters.
From revolutionary and centralistic France, where the old undemocratic order was soon reestablished again by Napoleon Bonaparte, the idea of I&R moved ahead to nearby Switzerland. Here the first nationwide referendum took place in 1802. By the new Constitution of 1848 an obligatory constutional referendum was introduced, and later - in 1874 - the facultative Referendum and finally in 1891 the popular initiative. The establishment of a strong I&R process was only possible step-by-step, through the pressure of strong citizens movements.
By the end of the 19th century, the sucessfull establishment of I&R in Switzerland inspired many center-right and center-left progressive movements to fight for the reform of representative democracy. Between 1898 and 1912 more than 22 state-level-constitutions of the United States were amended in a direct-democratic way. Also in Australia and New Zealand the citizens obtained the empowering instruments of I&R. In the beginning of the 20th century many social democratic and liberal politicians welcomed I&R as additional democratic instruments. However, communists on the far left and facists on the far right were opposed, and they tried instead to kidnap the process by plebicites, as Hitler did several times in Nazi Germany.
The World Wars and the Cold War slowed down if not stopped the democratization all over the world, and especially in Europe. However, the European integration process in the western part and the fall of the Berlin Wall in the eastern part provoked a new wave of democratization with more than 30 new nationwide constitutions in this part of the world. I&R even entered in centralistic polities like Sweden and Finland and is now by the World Bank seen as one "of the most important political developments" in the world.
Most national constitutions of today do provide some basic I&R opportunities. But far too often these instruments are designed in sucy a way that they literally cannot be used by the citizens at all. Between 1990 and 2000, referendums took place in 84 (Europe: 23) sovereign states of the world. In another 60 nationstates (Europe: 7) I&R elements do exist in the constutions, but have not been used. An even more dynamic development does recently take place on local and regional polity levels: from being an almost unknown instrument I&R has become an important issue and tool e.g. in Germany, Portugal, Ireland and the Baltic States. On the other side, Germany with its 80+ million polulation is on the way to become the biggest I&R polity so long. And more than that, also in the upcoming constitutional debate in the European Union, I&R will play a role. IRI Europe is qualified to make its contribution to this exciting development.