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).

Six Things We Know About EU Referendum Campaigns

Kai Oppermann and Paul Taggart

Donald Rumsfeld famously talked about ‘known knowns’ and ‘known unknowns’. Looking systematically at referendums and at the experience of these in Europe, we can learn from what has happened in other European referendums to help us in looking at what may happen in the UK’s referendum on EU membership. There may be uncertainty ahead but we can know what we don’t know from previous experience. We suggest that there are six lessons we can learn

  1. Referendum outcomes are hard to predict

The one ‘known known’ we have is the state of the polls at the outset. But early in the campaign, opinion polls tell us very little about what the outcome of the referendum will be on 23 June. Around 20% of voters are still undecided. More than that, voting behaviour in referendums is much less settled and more fluid than in general elections. This is because party affiliation and long-term party identification matter less in referendums whereas campaign effects tend to matter more. In particular, the referendum campaign will increase the level of information the average voter holds about Britain in Europe. The campaign only really started after the European negotiations about the British demands were concluded on 19 February, and voters will hear a lot about the EU from both sides of the debate between now and the referendum. Early polls reflect the balance of opinion in a relatively information poor environment, but the vote will take place in a quite information rich environment. This might swing a significant number of voters – in one direction or the other.

  1. Turnout matters

EU referendums have been won or list depending on the ability of the opposing sides to mobilise and to turn out the vote. Good examples are the two Irish ‘No’ votes on the treaties of Nice (2001) and Lisbon (2008). Both votes involved low turnouts – 35% in the case of Nice, 53% on the treaty of Lisbon – which were primarily down to the poor mobilisation of the ‘Yes’ camps. When the two treaties were put to second referendums in 2002 and 2009, the ‘Yes’ campaigns learned the lessons from their previous defeats and were better at mobilising their supporters. In consequence, the turnout increased by 15% (Nice) and 5% (Lisbon) which in both cases was sufficient to overturn the results of the first referendum and to deliver ‘Yes’ votes.

The difference between the Irish experience and the current referendum campaign in Britain, however, is that we should not expect a significant gap in the mobilisation of the ‘Remain’ and ‘Leave’ campaigns. There can be little doubt that the stakes are very high and that the question of British EU membership will dominate the UK political debate. Mobilisation will, therefore, be very strong on both sides of the divide. Turnout might well be higher than, for example, in the 2015 general elections when it stood at 66% but it is unlikely to be as high as the 85% achieved in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum. What is less clear cut, however, is which camp a high turnout will benefit. On the one hand, the ‘Leave’ side might be able to mobilise disaffected voters who do not tend to turn out in general elections. On the other hand, the core support for leaving the EU will likely be sufficiently mobilised to turn out anyway and will already be ‘priced into’ current opinion polls. An exceptionally high turnout at the referendum would, therefore, likely be driven by the mobilisation of supporters for staying in the EU and thus be to the benefit of the ‘Remain’ camp.

  1. Establishment versus anti-establishment

A distinctive feature of referendum campaigns is their binary and polarised nature. In the case of EU referendums, this generally pits the establishment on the pro-EU side against the anti-establishment on the Eurosceptic side. This binary structure tends to work as a magnifying glass for the anti-establishment case, and part of the resonance of Eurosceptic arguments in EU referendums precisely comes from their anti-establishment appeal. However, this divide between the establishment and critics of that establishment is probably less pronounced in the current British referendum than in many previous EU referendums across Europe. This is because the case for leaving the EU has moved towards the mainstream in British politics and resonates with parts of the political and economic establishment as well as across large swathes of the print media. At the same time, it is still evident that the ‘Leave’ campaign seeks to play the anti-establishment card, trying to present itself as ‘outsiders’ standing up for the British people against Whitehall elites and ‘Brussels’.

  1. Elite cues matter

Although party identification is a less important driver of voting behaviour in EU referendums than in general elections, cues from the elites still matter. In particular, such cues will be more powerful, the more united each of the two camps is and the more voters trust their leading figures. However, elite cues on both sides of the debate will likely be weakened by internal divisions. The ‘Leave’ camp has difficulty finding a common line on how to engage with UKIP and on whether it should officially be led by ‘Vote Leave’ or ‘Leave.EU’. On the ‘remain’ side, the cues from the government to Conservative voters will become weaker the more the Conservative party and the cabinet are divided. In terms of trust, the ‘Remain’ campaign appears to be on the advantage, because David Cameron is better trusted on the referendum in the public at large than any leading figure of the ‘Leave’ campaign, including Boris Johnson. In particular, Nigel Farage divides public opinion and is trusted mainly by those who have already decided to vote for leaving the EU. His cues will thus be unlikely to sway many voters who are yet undecided.

  1. Priming effects

Voters in EU referendums are primed to think about the question on the ballot in terms of the issues that are on the forefront of their minds on voting day. This suggests that the outcome of the referendum will be affected by which issues are most prominent in June. If the issue agenda at the time of the vote will still be dominated by immigration – crowding out, for example, economic arguments and concerns – voters will be primed to decide on EU membership in terms of what they think it implies for immigration. This stands to benefit the ‘Leave’ side which should, therefore, be expected to focus their campaign on the immigration issue. The more the political debate at the time of the referendum reflects a more optimistic mood and a broad sense of satisfaction with the government and with personal circumstances, the more this should benefit the ‘Remain’ side.

  1. The Status quo and the consequences of leaving

Voting behaviour in referendums (and elsewhere) is marked by a bias in favour of the status quo. Voters tend to be risk averse and prefer the certainty of the status quo to the uncertainty of change. The riskier voters consider leaving the EU to be, the more this benefits the ‘Remain’ side. Much of the referendum campaign will, therefore, become a framing contest about the consequences of voting to leave. While the ‘Remain’ campaign will portray leaving the EU as – in David Cameron’s words – a ‘great leap into the dark’, economically and politically. The ‘Leave’ campaign will make the case that change would be gradual and incremental and that leaving the EU would not entail a radical break with the past. The more dissatisfied voters are with the status quo and the more they believe to lose out from it, however, the more risk acceptant they will become and the more likely they will be prepared to vote against the status quo and for leaving the EU even if this is seen as risky.

This will be a tight referendum. The outcome is hard to predict but we can learn from other referendums. We can to some extent be aware of what we don’t know on turnout, on priming, elite cues and issue salience. These may well have a crucial effect in determining the outcome. But, of course, the other category that Rumsfeld has was the ‘unknown unknowns’, or, as British Conservative prime minister Harold Macmillan would have it, ‘events’. The key ‘known known’ we have is that the next few months will matter in determining the outcome of one of the momentous decisions in UK politics.

Kai Oppermann is Reader in Politics at the University of Sussex. Paul Taggart is Professor of Politics at the University of Sussex, where he is Director of the Sussex European Institute, and Co-Convenor of the European Parties Elections and Referendums Network.