The Dutch Ukraine-referendum: campaign, results and aftermath

Saskia Hollander and Stijn van Kessel

In a referendum on 6 April 2016, 61% of Dutch voters who participated in the poll rejected the ratification of the EU’s association agreement with Ukraine. After the referendum on the EU Constitutional Treaty in 2005, this was the second time in modern history that the Dutch voted in a national referendum. It was also the second time that the Dutch pulled the emergency brake when it comes to EU affairs. The referendum campaign failed to foster a well-informed public debate about the subject matter, and the outcome is unlikely to lead to substantial revisions in the agreement.

The Dutch referendum law

The referendum on the EU-Ukraine agreement constituted a newly acquired democratic right. Since July 2015, Dutch citizens have the possibility to initiate a corrective referendum (that is, a citizens’ veto) on legislative proposals approved by parliament. Referendums organised under the Dutch referendum law are advisory and a turnout quorum of 30% applies. Thus, citizens can trigger a referendum to *advise* the government to withdraw a legislative proposal, but the authorities only need to *consider* the outcome when 30% of voters participate in the poll.

The new referendum law signifies a break with the past: for a long time, the Netherlands was one of the few EU countries without formal regulations for holding national referendums. In comparative perspective, the Dutch referendum law is exceptional: the Netherlands is the only EU country where citizen-initiated referendums are advisory and where a quorum applies to advisory referendums. This design is due to the difficult process through which it came into being.

Proposals to introduce a referendum were consistently opposed by the Christian Democrats (CDA) and Liberals (VVD), two of the three traditionally dominant parties in the Netherlands – the third being the Labour Party (PvdA). In 2005, after a second parliamentary rejection of a government bill to introduce binding citizens’ vetoes, MPs from three left-wing/socially liberal parties (Labour, GroenLinks and D66) filed two alternative proposals: one to introduce a binding citizens’ veto, and one to introduce an advisory version. It took almost 10 years for the bills to be voted on in parliament. After the approval of both bills by the Dutch Upper House in 2014, the advisory referendum came into effect in July 2015. The bill on the binding veto, on the other hand, required a constitutional revision, and therefore awaits approval in both Houses by a qualified majority in the second parliamentary reading, which is due to take place after the 2017 parliamentary election.

The initiators made several compromises to ensure the support of sufficient parties for the advisory referendum, and thus the passing of the proposal. These included the introduction of a turnout quorum and the guarantee that referendums could also be held on international treaties. As turned out, the devil is exactly in these compromises.

The birth of the ‘Ukraine referendum’

Soon after the referendum law came into effect, the Eurosceptic citizens’ movement GeenPeil, together with the Citizens’ Committee-EU (Burgercomité-EU) and the Forum for Democracy (Forum voor Democratie), was able to collect more than 400,000 valid signatures, exceeding the required 300,000, for an initiative that would trigger a referendum on the EU-Ukraine association agreement. The initiative was motivated by concerns related to ongoing European integration and the EU’s democratic deficit, not the association agreement as such. GeenPeil declared that it opposed the EU’s expansionist aspirations, even though the agreement did not touch on the question of a possible EU membership of Ukraine. Notably, in an interview in late March the chairman of the Citizens’ Committee-EU declared that his organisation ‘didn’t care about Ukraine’ and that its ultimate goal was to ‘destroy the EU’, or force a Dutch ‘exit’ from the EU.

The debate

As with the referendum on the Constitutional Treaty in 2005, the referendum sparked considerable public debate in the run-up to the vote. Although the initiators may primarily have used the instrument to place on the agenda the broader issue of European integration, the public debate largely focused on the perceived benefits and flaws of the association agreement. An often-repeated argument on the ‘against’ side was that political and economic integration with a corrupt country like Ukraine was undesirable. Arguments in favour of the agreement often centred on the moral duty to help the transition of Ukraine to a full-fledged democracy – as previously happened with regard to post-communist EU members – and the desire to pull the country out of Russia’s sphere of influence.

Of the political parties represented in the Dutch parliament, only the Socialist Party (SP), Freedom Party (PVV) and the single-issue Party for the Animals (PvdD) campaigned on the ‘no’ side, albeit for different reasons. For the Socialist Party, the association agreement underscored the EU’s neoliberal aspirations, and the party stressed that essentially only large companies would benefit from it, at the expense of the ordinary Ukrainian and EU citizens. The Freedom Party argued that the agreement would eventually lead to the accession of a corrupt country to the EU and an influx of Ukrainian immigrants. Moreover, according to the party, a popular rejection of the agreement would also signal a rejection of the ‘elites’ in Brussels. The Party for the Animals, in its turn, opposed the agreement on the grounds that EU trade agreements supposedly lead to a ‘race to the bottom’ in animal welfare standards. All other Dutch political parties were in favour of the agreement, stressing that it would benefit Ukrainian democracy, economy and, thus, its citizens. Nevertheless, only D66 actively campaigned on the ‘Yes’ side’.

Although the referendum generated a public debate, it was hardly an informed one. This was unsurprising given the lengthy and technical nature of the agreement. The problems surrounding the distribution of campaign money further hampered a well-informed debate. For example, an organisation was granted almost €48,000 in campaign money to print toilet paper with false arguments against the agreement, such as the suggestions that Ukrainians would be allowed to work in the EU without a visa, and that no women were represented in Ukrainian politics. Moreover, the questionable assumption that the agreement was the first step towards Ukrainian EU membership was not truly defused.

The vote

The results of the referendum signified a resounding victory for the ‘no’ camp: 61% of those who turned out voted against the association agreement, 38% voted in favour. Whether this result accurately represented the views of the entire Dutch electorate is a moot point: only 32% of the eligible voters took the effort to vote. This only slightly exceeded the 30% required to make the result valid. Polls indicate that many voters who essentially supported the agreement abstained strategically, in the hope that the quorum would not be met, thereby skewing the eventual results.

The referendum proved to be a case of history repeating itself. As in 2005, about two-thirds of those who turned out voted against a piece of EU-related legislation, and against the wishes of a great majority of Dutch MPs. A poll conducted by Ipsos revealed that in particular the two governing parties failed to persuade their electorates to act in accordance with their wishes: 62% of Liberal voters voted against, while almost 80% per cent of Labour voters abstained. As in 2005, the referendum also exposed an educational gap. According to the same Ipsos poll, especially better-educated voters voted in favour of the agreement. Yet, of this group a considerable proportion of 64% abstained. Most less well-educated voters either voted against the agreement or stayed at home.

Considering the highly complex subject matter, and the related lack of knowledge among most voters, it is not realistic to claim that the referendum outcome reflected a well-informed assessment of the costs and benefits of the EU-Ukraine treaty. The results are more likely a proxy for the prevailing Eurosceptic and anti-establishment sentiments among the Dutch population.

Uncertainty about the referendum’s implications…

The popular rejection of the EU-Ukraine agreement by no means implies withdrawal of the Dutch signature. Prior to the referendum, the Dutch government – currently holding the EU presidency – had not made it clear what it would do in case the Dutch voters would ‘advise’ the authorities to put halt to ratification. The referendum law prescribes that the Dutch government needs to make clear its position (whether or not to proceed with ratification) as soon as possible. After the vote, however, the government asked parliament permission to postpone its decision. In response, the Socialist Party filed a motion that demanded the government to respect the outcome of the referendum and to withdraw the Dutch ratification. This motion was supported by the entire opposition – with elections upcoming in spring 2017 this was ostensibly a good opportunity to embarrass the government. Yet the two governing parties, which have a small majority in the Lower House, supported the government’s plea to negotiate with the other 27 EU member countries about the implications of the Dutch ‘No’.

In the meantime, some parts of the agreement that deal with trade regulations have already come into effect in January 2016. To annul these provisions in retrospect requires the approval of all 28 member states. This, or a complete renegotiation of the agreement, is highly unlikely to happen, given the fact that the agreement has already been approved by the other EU member states and Ukraine. These countries have little appetite for renegotiations, and are unlikely to accept one country bringing to a halt the ratification process. The EU, moreover, faces other problems of seemingly greater importance and urgency, including the looming Brexit-referendum. It remains unclear for the moment how the Dutch government will attempt to please the ‘No’ voters – other than asking for symbolic changes or silently letting the issue slip off the political agenda. In a meeting with MPs from EU countries on the 13th of June, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte (Liberals) did little to defend the referendum outcome, which he described as ‘disastrous’. He further declared himself to be ‘totally, totally, totally against referenda on multilateral agreements, because it makes no sense’.

Essentially, it is unlikely that the no-voters will be satisfied. If the referendum outcome indeed proves inconsequential, the main result will probably be the fuelling of further scepticism with the Dutch and European political elites, who can be blamed for ignoring ‘the voice of the people’. Such scepticism is likely to come to the fore again in a possible referendum on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), for which citizens’ groups are already gathering signatures.

…and about the Dutch referendum law

The referendum has sparked considerable debate about the value of the instrument in general, and specific aspects of the referendum law in particular. One day after the vote, Interior Minister Ronald Plasterk announced an evaluation of the law. Any changes to the law will likely see either the abolition or the increase of the widely criticised quorum. The second option is more likely, considering that the three traditionally dominant parties (Liberals, Christian Democrats and Labour) supported the introduction of a quorum when the law was introduced. Another possibility is to replace the advisory citizens’ referendum with the binding version, which awaits approval by parliament in the second parliamentary reading. However, the bitter taste of this referendum for the mainstream political parties, which were all in favour of the EU-Ukraine agreement, suggests that the bill on the binding citizens’ veto is awaiting an uncertain fate.

Saskia Hollander has recently submitted her doctoral thesis on the use of referendums in Europe at the Radboud University Nijmegen. She is knowledge broker and coordinator of the Inclusive Economy programme at The Broker, a Dutch thinknet on globalisation and development.

Stijn van Kessel is Lecturer in Politics at Loughborough University. His current research mainly focuses on populism in Europe and radical right party discourse. He is the author of Populist Parties in Europe: Agents of Discontent? (2015).

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