Was the Dutch referendum really a tool for democracy?

On 6 April 2016 an advisory referendum took place in the Netherlands about the ratification of the EU-Ukraine Association Treaty. Turn out was just 32 % and by a majority of 61 % to 39 % ratification was rejected.

This outcome raises the following questions:

  • How could this referendum be organised
  • why did the Netherlands vote ‘against’ Ukraine
  • and, most pertinently, what next

The possibility of holding an advisory referendum was introduced into Dutch law in July 2015, after many years of promotion by the left liberal party D66, which since its foundation (in 1966, as it says on the tin) has deployed several initiatives to “bring democracy closer to the people”.

Dutch citizens can initiate such an advisory referendum, whilst the consultative referendum – such as the 2005 one that rejected the European Constitution – is a parliamentary prerogative.

The conservative Liberal party and the Christian democrats never liked the principle of such a referendum but it was finally approved by an opportunistic coalition of D66, greens, socialists and the extreme right “Wilders” party.

However, it turned out to be a compromise that has some inherent deficiencies that will bring the Dutch government and maybe even the EU into difficulties:

  • The referendum is a so-called “corrective” which means that only after a government decision can an issue be challenged by referendum. So the decision of the parliament can be revoked after it was taken and this could lead to rather complicated and messy legal situations.
  • The government is theoretically not legally bound to follow the outcome of a purely advisory plebiscite. However, in this first referendum of its kind, the spin-doctors of most parties were so afraid to be seen as undemocratic that they already before the vote declared that the outcome should be respected.
  • Some topics are excluded from being put to an consultative  referendum such as budgetary issues. (I suspect that a referendum to abolish all taxes could find a majority in Holland). However, international agreements were not excluded so a Dutch government can indeed negotiate with a parliamentary mandate but it can never be sure the outcome will be sustained after a referendum. This will make the position of Dutch diplomacy very uncertain, nay unstable. If all Member States had this kind of possibility then it would be rather useless to negotiate any agreement in the EU!
  • The legislation laid down that in order to organise a referendum 300.000 signatures are needed, probably hoping that this would only happen on really serious occasions. However, this threshold was set before realising the fantastic possibilities of Facebook and other digital communications. The organisers of the recent referendum introduced some apps that made it incredibly easy to gather these signatures.

Are the Dutch really so anti Ukraine?

The answer is probably no.

Firstly, the campaign for the referendum demonstrated clearly that this instrument can be used in a democracy when based on erroneous or even untrue one-liners.

The NO side issued several messages that the Association Treaty would de facto mean Ukraine joining the EU within a few years. The left socialists told TV that this would mean that Ukraine drivers would take the place of Dutch ones and some news web sites highlighted corruption in the Ukraine. The defence of the YES side was pretty weak or simply ignored.

However, the main reason for the NO victory is that many people had other reasons for their vote:

  • a large proportion voted NO because they are anti-EU
  • another group voted NO because they are afraid of immigration
  • an element voted to embarrass the Dutch government
  • another element voted because they wanted to believe all biased and false information about the Ukraine because that came from people they trusted more than the traditional parties.

Finally, there are many in the Netherlands who do not like a referendum as such because they believe in a delegated or representative democracy, where elected MPs have been given a mandate for 4 years. Many of these people did not vote hoping that the 30% threshold would not be met. (How wrong could they be – even if just).

Two things about the future:

First, the Dutch government is deeply embarrassed and will postpone any action until after their EU Presidency (it ends on June 30). It will probably try to save face by proposing that some statement be introduced into the Association Treaty that this will not mean adhesion to the EU. But this feeble follow-up will further undermine the belief of NO voters in democracy.

Second, the referendum’s main organisers made clear in the press on the eve of poll that they did not care a fig about Ukraine but that they just took this as the first opportunity to block the government and undermine the EU. The next issue that they will bring forward is probably the TTIP. Other items on their list are the Euro and the immigration. Their final goal is to break up the EU.

The Dutch government should really reconsider this referendum law with some urgency and raise the threshold bar for signatures. Otherwise, this instrument to enhance popular democracy could turn the Netherlands into a banana kingdom and even further damage the EU.

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