Hungary’s EU refugee quota referendum: “Let’s send a message to Brussels they can understand” – or not

Agnes Batory

Sending a message to Brussels was, at least, the main declared objective of Hungary’s Fidesz government which posed the following referendum question to voters on 2 October 2016: ‘Do you want the European Union to be entitled to prescribe the mandatory settlement of non-Hungarian citizens in Hungary without the consent of parliament?’

The answer, from virtually everyone (98%) who cast a valid ballot, was ‘No’. This outcome was never in doubt, since most people who bothered to vote seem to have interpreted the question, to simplify greatly, as to whether they wanted (more) foreigners to be allowed to live in their country. Public opinion in Hungary is relatively hostile to non-European immigration and these attitudes have been reinforced by the Fidesz government’s relentless campaign to portray the refugees as a threat to Hungary’s way of life and well-being.

While the majority of the ‘No’ votes was taken for granted, turnout was seen as much more uncertain. Prime Minister Viktor Orban made it clear in the run-up to the referendum that the vote was to be a show of strength, of ‘national unity’ backing the government’s position. However, polls in the final days before the referendum indicated that the 50% threshold required for a valid result might not be reached, causing Orban and his colleagues to backpedal, trying to downplay the importance of high participation. In the event, turnout was only 44%, including 4% spoiled ballots (leaving the figure 10% below the required 50%). The low turnout was widely seen as a failure for the government and Orban personally.

“We must stop Brussels”

In many ways the referendum should have been a non-event. First, as a consultative referendum, it was widely known that the outcome would not be binding on the government. Second, as counter-campaigners repeatedly pointed out, Parliament’s authorization was at best a technicality: Fidesz has a comfortable majority in the national assembly, and its highly disciplined caucus reliably enacts the party leadership’s decisions, which, in any case, is in the best position to defend the country’s interests in the EU decision-making process. Hungary’s ministers and prime minister are members of the European Council and the Council of the European Union, respectively, where the EU’s response to the migration crisis is debated and decided. And finally, the ‘non-Hungarian citizens’ who might be relocated to Hungary, for the purposes of processing their asylum requests, as a consequence of the EU redistribution plan numbered roughly 1300 people – a much smaller number than the 10,000 beneficiaries of the Hungarian government’s extremely lax residency bond programme. Non-European immigration to Hungary has been negligible; the vast majority of asylum seekers arriving in 2015 simply wanted to cross the country en route to Germany and Scandinavia.

More importantly, as many of Orban’s opponents both in Hungary and in the EU pointed out, the referendum should not have taken place, because it flies in the face of Hungary’s obligations as an EU member state. While the September 2015 Council decision on the mandatory relocation of 120,000 persons who have made an application in an EU country for international protection is hotly debated in the EU, and may eventually be overturned, in the meantime it is binding on all member states. (The two countries that voted against it, Hungary and Slovakia, legally challenged the decision at the European Court of Justice which however has not reached a verdict yet). Therefore, it was evident that should the referendum return a valid ‘No’ vote, the government would be forced to either disregard the outcome or adopt policies that directly defy the EU’s authority  something that Hungary’s prime minister is no stranger to.

So why hold a referendum? As David Cameron’s – and now Orban’s own – recent experience shows, referendums are always a bit of a gamble. Part of the answer probably lies in Viktor Orban’s supreme confidence in his own ability to read, and shape, the public mood. Another factor is Orban and his cabinet’s ambition to project (more) authority in the EU. The Hungarian government has sought to revive the previously rather lame Visegrad group and position itself as leader of the group, for which the issue presented a perfect platform. Viktor Orban is well-known for not shying away from conflict and has repeatedly clashed with the European Commission and other member states critical of his self-declared objective of building an ‘illiberal democracy’, cementing his party’s hold on power, and being friendly with Vladimir Putin. His vision for the EU is that of a Europe of nation states where supranational institutions cannot challenge the authority of national leaders. The government therefore framed the referendum as a vital boost to its authority vis-à-vis the EU institutions, arguing that it would be impossible for the European Commission in particular to go against the Hungarian government’s democratic mandate.

However, a clearer rationale for the referendum comes from Hungarian domestic politics, and Fidesz’s efforts to keep its stronghold on the political agenda – as its opponents claim, to divert attention from high-level corruption, the sorry state of healthcare and a bungled centralization of the school system. Halfway through the 2014-18 term, Fidesz wanted to solidify and broaden its electoral base, if possible by outflanking its main competitor, the extreme-right Jobbik. In this respect, from a purely partisan point of view, the refugee crisis was a godsend, allowing Fidesz to deepen its long-standing Euroscepticism.

From the spring of 2015, Fidesz strategists masterfully fuelled the public’s fears of uncontrolled (non-European) mass migration and used the EU as punching bag, moving from the EU’s inability to deal with the refugee crisis to a more systemic critique of the Union as dysfunctional, captured by special interests and/or the interests of the larger member states, and removed from the concerns of ordinary people. This was contrasted with the Hungarian government’s own measures, notably the controversial decision of building a fence along Hungary’s southern border with Serbia to block the migrants’ transit route.

Thus, although the referendum campaign only geared up in summer 2016, the ground was carefully prepared by an anti-immigration campaign starting a year before, featuring slogans such as ‘If you come to Hungary, you cannot take the Hungarians’ jobs away’. Fidesz also launched a so-called national consultation. A questionnaire mailed to every Hungarian household carefully made the link between immigration, terrorism, and unemployment, and pitted the refugees’ economic interests against those of Hungarian citizens. The party’s communication strategy then built up to the referendum in three distinct phases, using massive amounts of public funding as part of a ‘governmental information campaign’. Phase one focused on assigning blame: ‘Let’s send a message to Brussels they can understand’. Phase two centered on statements, disguised as objective fact, whipping up anti-migration sentiment. Giant billboards and a direct mail campaign posed questions such as ‘Did you know? The Paris attacks were committed by immigrants’; or ‘Did you know? Brussels wants to settle a whole city’s worth of illegal immigrants in Hungary’. Finally, in the last weeks Fidesz instructed voters ‘not to take a risk – vote No’.

“Stay home – stay in Europe” and “Ask a stupid question, get a stupid answer”

To what extent did the parliamentary opposition shape this turn of events? The answer is, at least concerning the moderate political forces in parliament, less than they could have had they been able to make up their minds about a common strategy early on. Fidesz’s arguably most effective competitor is Jobbik, the extreme right party that currently polls as Hungary’s second or third most popular (Fidesz continues to lead the polls). Jobbik campaigned for a ‘No’ in the referendum, and essentially claimed that Fidesz simply appropriated what was originally ‘their’ issue, but only for show. The several parties that nowadays make up the fragmented democratic opposition to Fidesz were, as is now usual, confused, confusing and divided on the issue. But after some hesitation the centre-left settled on boycotting the referendum, recognizing that repressing turnout was the only plausible way to defeat the government, in that at least the result would not be valid.

The advice to abstain was substantiated with the argument that, first, the referendum was not necessary, since there was no sinister EU migration ploy to combat, and second, that the vote was not about the resettlement quota or even about migration but ‘really’ about Hungary’s continued EU membership. Former Socialist prime minister Gyurcsany’s campaign posters consequently told people to ‘Stay home – stay in Europe’. This was based on sound strategic thinking: while anti-immigration sentiments are clearly strong in society, Hungarian voters are, at least in comparison with many other EU countries, relatively pro-EU. In spring 2016, three-quarters of the population supported Hungary’s membership in the European Union and only about one-fifth opposed it. Thus, managing to shift the debate from the migration issue to the EU issue was certainly suitable for dampening participation in a referendum that the government explicitly framed as a weapon against ‘Brussels’.

The main weakness of the Socialists’ and other centre-left opposition parties’ campaign was that they had relatively little street- or media-presence, for the simple reason that they could not compete with the massive financial and other resources that the government campaign drew on. In fact, the most visible counter-campaign came from a group of activists who define themselves as a ‘satirical party’ and go by the name Two-Tailed Dog Party (TTDP). The party became known in the previous election campaign where they ridiculed Orban’s populism, promoting ‘electoral pledges’ such as the classic: ‘Long life, free beer, down with taxes’. Their response to the government’s summer 2015 anti-immigration campaign was billboards addressed to the refugees making their way through Hungary: ‘Sorry about our prime minister’ and ‘Feel free to come to Hungary, we already work in England’.

The TTDP anti-referendum campaign was crowd-funded, and consisted almost entirely of (a few) large commercial billboards and in large cities masses of small posters, on photocopied A4 sheets, making fun of the government slogans in the same irreverent tone. Mirroring the government’s ‘Did you know’ (dis-)information campaign, TTDP posed questions such as ‘Did you know? The average Hungarian encounters more UFOs than migrants’. The party’s advice to voters was to register their disapproval by spoiling their ballot, captured in ‘Ask a stupid question, get a stupid answer’. Given how small TTDP is, their impact on the outcome is remarkable: over 6% acted on the Two Tailed Dog advice nationally. In Budapest, almost 12% of those who voted spoiled their ballot, sending a message not so much to Brussels as to the prime minister’s office.

What’s next for Hungary, and for the study of Euroscepticism?

In Hungary, the low turnout is widely seen as a blow to Fidesz and Orban personally. After what some claim was the most expensive campaign in Hungarian political history, the 40% valid ‘No’ vote is clearly a disappointment, no matter how the party’s spin doctors and the prime minister himself insisted that only the large majority of the ‘No’ votes mattered. It is the first time since Fidesz’s landslide victory in 2010 that Orban’s will did not carry the day: despite the propaganda effort, the majority of Hungarians decided not to play along.

Nonetheless, Fidesz leaders have little reason to worry. The party continues to lead the polls by a large margin. The referendum’s ‘No’ voters (approximately 3.3 million) number some 300,000 more than those who supported Hungary’s EU membership in the 2003 referendum, and about a million more than those who supported the Fidesz list in the 2014 elections, suggesting that the government succeeded in reaching people beyond its core base. Given, furthermore, the electoral system tailored to the party’s needs, the dominance of Fidesz-friendly media outlets, and the fragmented mainstream opposition, it is unlikely that Hungary’s next elections will lead to a new government.

As to scholarship on parties, elections and referendums, Aleks Szczerbiak and Paul Taggart note in a previous comment that in the wake of Brexit advocating for leaving the EU could (again) become a litmus test for hard Euroscepticism, since this is now a viable policy position. But politicians like Hungary’s feisty populist prime minister defy categorization as hard or soft Eurosceptic along these lines. He displays principled, ideological opposition to most if not all the supranational features of the EU, yet does not wish to quit the club. Orban and his allies in other EU member states (notably Poland) seek to change the EU from within, possibly by unraveling particular aspects of European integration. This would entail the rest of the EU coming around to Orban’s point of view.

It is highly unlikely that Viktor Orban will succeed where David Cameron failed. However, for scholarship on Euroscepticism to remain relevant, finding the right label is perhaps less important than understanding party strategies devised for a multi-level political system – the repercussions of cultivated Euroscepticism in the member states, its effects on the EU and vice versa.

 

Agnes Batory (Batorya@ceu.edu) is Professor of Public Policy at Central European University. Her research interests include party politics and European public policy.

Hard Choices and Few Soft Options: The Implications of Brexit for Euroscepticism

Aleks Szczerbiak and Paul Taggart

The dramatic vote for Brexit has the potential to transform the terrain for Euroscepticism in the coming years. The referendum result appears to have led to both a slight, short-term drop in support for public Euroscepticism and a ‘softening’ of its expression in party politics. In the longer term, however, it could transform the perception of rejectionist Hard Euroscepticism from a marginal political stance into a viable political project. Britain’s departure from the EU – and earlier failure to secure significant concessions in pre-referendum negotiations, in spite of threatening withdrawal – could also deal a severe blow to more qualified and contingent anti-federalist Soft Euroscepticism across Europe.

(Re-)Defining Hard and Soft Euroscepticism

When we first started to try and define the phenomena of party-based Euroscepticism more than fifteen years ago we felt that there was a need to break down this concept and distinguish between principled, outright opposition to European integration through the EU on the one hand and more contingent and qualified opposition on the other. As a consequence, we developed the concepts of ‘Hard’ and ‘Soft’ Euroscepticism and, after much discussion and debate with (and responding to criticisms from) a number of colleagues working in this sub-field, we refined and re-formulated our initial working definitions. Hard Euroscepticism was, therefore, defined as: principled opposition to the project of European integration based on the ceding or transfer of powers to supranational institutions such as the EU. Soft Euroscepticism, on the other hand, was when there was not a principled objection to EU European integration, but there was opposition to Union’s current or future planned trajectory based on the further extension of competencies that it was planning to make.

The main driver for our decision to modify and refine our original conceptualism was criticism from scholars such as Petr Kopecky and Cas Mudde that our original definition of Soft Euroscepticism (‘where concerns on one [or a number] of policy areas led to the expression of qualified opposition to the EU, or where there was a sense that ‘national interest’ was currently at odds with the EU trajectory’) was felt to be too broad and all-encompassing. However, significantly we also modified our original conceptualisation of Hard Euroscepticism which was defined as: ‘a principled opposition to the EU and European integration and therefore can be seen in parties who think that their countries should withdraw from membership, or whose policies towards the EU are tantamount to being opposed to the whole project of European integration as it is currently conceived’ (emphasis added). We came to the conclusion that support for or opposition to a country’s membership of the EU was a poor litmus test of whether a party should be classified as Hard or Soft Eurosceptic because, in practice, it was so rare to find examples of such parties that openly articulated withdrawal or opposed entry (even if the reason for this may have been a pragmatic one that such a demand was felt to be politically unrealistic). Rather, accepting the weakness of using attitudes towards EU membership at any given time as the key definitional variable, our response was to re-focus our definitions so that they referred (somewhat more amorphously) to a party’s attitude towards the principle of European integration in the case of Hard Eurosceptic parties or the EU’s current and future trajectory in terms of extending its competencies in the case of Soft Euroscepticism

Hard Euroscepticism as a viable political project

On June 23 2016, Euroscepticism recorded its greatest political victory to date when Britain voted by 51.9% to 48.1% on a 72.2% turnout to leave the EU, potentially changing the course of contemporary British and European history. How is this vote, the realisation of our original Hard Eurosceptic conceptualisation of opposition to a country’s continued EU membership, likely to impact on the development of Euroscepticism – and its academic study – in the rest of the EU?

Initially, and paradoxically, the Brexit referendum vote actually appears to have led to a slight fall in support for both popular Euroscepticism and a muting of its expression in party politics. This is, perhaps, not so surprising given that – whatever one thinks the medium-to-long-term social, economic and political consequences will be for Britain and the rest of Europe – such a momentous change was always likely to lead to at least a degree of instability and uncertainty in the short-term. The short-term reaction of European publics is, therefore, likely to be to back-off from supporting more radical Eurosceptic solutions and for parties that are opposed to, or strongly critical of the EU integration, to tone down their rhetoric as a response.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out in European elections over the next few months. Already, in the re-run Spanish parliamentary election held three days after the Brexit vote there was a small increase in support for the mainstream parties and decline in support for the radical left ‘Podemos’ party which many commentators expected to overtake its social democratic Spanish Socialist Party rival and emerge as the second largest force in the Spanish parliament. An interesting early indicator here is likely to be the re-run Austrian presidential election between the previously victorious Green Party candidate (supported by all the mainstream parties) and his narrowly defeated rival from the Eurosceptic Freedom Party, scheduled for October.

However, regardless of any short-term knocks that the Eurosceptic cause may suffer as a result of the uncertainty created by the need to re-negotiate Britain’s relationship with what remains of the EU, there is no doubt that the longer term impact of the Brexit referendum will to be transform rejectionist Hard Euroscepticism from a marginal political current (to the extent that, as noted above, we even had to re-define it to exclude withdrawal from the EU out as a key element) into a viable political project. In our view, the key breakthrough here was the ability of Hard Euroscepticism to move beyond the fringes of the party system and attract the support of several figures associated with the political mainstream, notably leading members of the British Conservative party such as cabinet member Michael Gove and former Mayor of London Boris Johnson.

In addition to showing that it is a feasible and realistic objective, the long-term attractiveness and exportability of the Hard Eurosceptic political project depends on how ‘successful’ (however defined) Brexit is judged to be. If it is, then we could see other mainstream Soft Eurosceptic political actors starting to consider their country’s withdrawal from the EU as a serious option, ether because this accords with their true ideological instincts on the European integration issue or for more electoral-strategic reasons to prevent themselves being outflanked by Hard Eurosceptic challengers on the fringes of their party systems. The one thing that is clear from the British vote is that domestic party politics, and particularly the unusual nature of the Conservative Party, played a massive role in facilitating a referendum decision on this international issue.

Is Soft Euroscepticism still a viable project?

The Brexit referendum, and earlier re-negotiation of the British terms of membership between British Conservative prime minister David Cameron and the EU institutions that preceded it, also raise serious questions about the future viability of Soft Euroscepticism as a political project. For sure, the reaction of some European political leaders, notably Poland’s right-wing Law and Justice governments, was to blame the Brexit referendum result on over-reach by EU political elites. Brexit may, therefore, prompt some broader re-thinking about the trajectory of the European project – and, indeed, force some EU leaders who are privately less enthusiastic about deeper political integration but have up until now hidden behind the British government’s anti-federalism, to break cover and articulate their views more openly. A major challenge to the EU’s current trajectory from a non-rejectionist perspective could also emerge on the heels of the European migration crisis following October’s Hungarian referendum on whether or not to reject the EU relocation scheme.

On the other hand, the instinctive reaction of many of the EU political elite to Brexit, particularly in the Commission, appears to be the same as it has been to every one of the countless crises that the EU has encountered in recent years. Indeed, it is clear that for some in European capitals and in Brussels, Brexit is the premise to call for ‘more Europe’ meaning faster and deeper political European integration, particularly around a vanguard hard core of Eurozone members. But the responses are diverse and some within both Brussels and national capitals have also seen Brexit as a call for reform and a less top-down process. Moreover, whatever the initial instinctive response, Brexit has important institutional implications. In the European Parliament it means the departure of the most significant Soft Eurosceptic political force from the EU, exemplified by the fact that, without the British Conservatives, the anti-federalist Soft Eurosceptic European Conservatives and Reformists European Parliament group is almost certain to cease to function. This raises serious question marks over the viability of Soft Euroscepticism as a long-term political project and whether it could end up being squeezed by Euro-enthusiastic federalist and the ‘harder’ rejectionist options.

Indeed, the failure of the British government – representing one of the largest, wealthiest and most powerful of the member states – to secure more than absolutely minimal concessions from the rest of the EU in its membership re-negotiations that preceded the referendum even when invoking the threat of the ‘nuclear option’ of withdrawal, dramatically illustrates the limitations of attempts to reform the EU in a more inter-governmentalist Soft Eurosceptic direction. In the longer-term, this could push some Soft Eurosceptics, (perhaps reluctantly) into a more Hard Eurosceptic stance.

The future is Hard?

At this stage, much of this is, of course, speculation. By placing membership of the EU for existing (as opposed to prospective) member states firmly on the political agenda, the Brexit referendum has made withdrawal – previously seemingly unthinkable for mainstream political actors – into a viable political option. As a consequence, it is forcing us as scholars of Euroscepticism to re-examine our (re-)conceptualistaion of Hard Euroscepticism so that it now includes withdrawal from the EU as a serious political option and (once again) possible litmus test for such rejectionist parties. This, together with the questioning of Soft Euroscepticism as a viable political project, means that while, by creating uncertainty, in the short-term Brexit may, paradoxically, have dampened down support for Euroscepticism, in the longer-term it may lead to the strengthening of the Hard version of it. Like so much in British politics, it remains to be seen if the exceptional becomes the new normal across Europe.

Aleks Szczerbiak is Professor of Politics and Contemporary European Studies at the University of Sussex. Paul Taggart is Professor of Politics at the University of Sussex and Director of the Sussex European Institute. They are Co-Convenors of the European Parties Elections and Referendums Network (EPERN) and co-editors of Opposing Europe: The Comparative Party Politics of Euroscepticism (Oxford University Press, 2008).

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).