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Dutch referendum: rejection of Europe or testing its resolve?

, by Ian Lovering

The results are in and the Dutch electorate have rejected ratifying the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement 61% to 38%, with turnout just above the 30% threshold required to deem the ballot valid for consideration. What does this mean and how should Europe respond?

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Twice in just over a decade, the Dutch have now voted No (or this time: Against). Of course, this time the referendum in the Netherlands on the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement was not strictly about the European Union. But for all intents and purposes, and specifically for those who instigated and ran the Against campaign, it was a plebiscite on the Dutch relationship with the EU. The vote on 6 April 2016 returned with approximately 61% against and 38% for ratifying the Association Agreement, with turnout a little over the 30% threshold required to deem the ballot valid for consideration.

The referendum came about following a petition from Eurosceptic group GeenPeil, collecting over 400,000 signatures. This came in response to the Dutch Consultative Referendum Law, which stipulated a referendum could be held should 300,000 signatures be collected. It has been widely reported that the Association Agreement was chosen not out of concern for Ukraine but for a proxy vote on the Dutch membership of the European Union that would be legally accepted as eligible under the Consultative Referendum legislation.

Consequences of ‘Against’

The results are undoubtedly a win for Russia, who’s hand in the Against campaign was strong. Stories abound of clandestine Russian intervention in European affairs to seed disunity within the continent integrating on its doorstep and from which they have been excluded. These interventions include feeding the migrant crisis, funding far right groups (including Geert Wilders’ PVV) and spreading Putin propaganda online. Reproducing the narrative of a ‘big bad’ Russian neighbour at Europe’s border feeds nothing but the strongman persona Putin’s internal legitimacy relies upon. Nevertheless, the geopolitical consequences of the Against vote further undermines an already shaky European unity in the face of Russian aggression felt keenly not only in Ukraine but also the Baltics.

For Ukraine, the consequences of the Against vote are more tragic. Put in the precarious state that the Agreement that ignited a civil war is in the end taken off the table is a devastating blow. Far from imposed on Ukraine, the Agreement is welcomed by many in the country looking for a blueprint towards a European model: the rule of law, respect of human rights and the opportunities (although of course also the sometimes painful adjustments) a free market, capitalist economy brings. The significant presence of Ukrainian activists and politicians in the Netherlands in the lead up to the referendum, as well as the coverage the vote has received in Ukraine, is testament to the importance of the Agreement for the country.

For Europe, the Dutch vote poses a question, one that has been on the cards since at least the constitution was rejected in several countries in 2005. What does the continent do about a significant and vocal minority who seek to reverse integration and dissolve the European Union? For a long time, the answer to this question has been to ignore those who disagree, and hope they miraculously go away. The constitution became the Lisbon Treaty and passed, Eurosceptic parties have been written off as right-wing ‘fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists’ and side-lined from serious political debate, Greek referendums on Eurozone bailouts were dismissed and forced through. It is likely that the Dutch government, after a brief period of wrangling, will similarly ignore the referendum and ratify the Association Agreement anyway, as is their prerogative from a merely ‘consultative’ referendum such as this, but unfortunate given the history of dismissing Eurosceptic advances. At the European level, Juncker has already concluded the referendum will have no effect on the Ukraine Agreement, merely expressing he is ‘sad’ with the result.

From ignore to engage – tackling Euroscepticism

There are of course extremely strong arguments for ratifying the Agreement: such as setting Ukraine on the European development trajectory they desperately need or strengthening the rule of law in a country where corruption is endemic. Nevertheless, the consequences of ignoring the Against campaigners will only add fuel to the Euroscepticism fire. Rather than suppressing Euroscepticism, the strategy of isolation has only had the effect of hardening the belief that Europe is blind to people’s concerns, unwilling to listen and impossible to reform. Some perspective is important here. The last general election in the Netherlands in 2012, at the height of the Eurocrisis, returned a parliament in favour of European cooperation. The threat being faced therefore is not a country rejecting Europe, but a vocal minority feeling disempowered and that their voice has not been heard. Using the channels open to them by the Consultative Referendum legislation, this minority has forced Europe onto the policy agenda, demanding to be heard. That this minority feels excluded is of course not a problem whose fault lies solely with the EU. Rather, the EU is a symbol for a modern politics that is technocratic and distant from voters, who feel they have lost a sense of direction and autonomy in a turbulent and centreless world.

Resolving this is of course not straightforward and it is unlikely that some reform here or there will settle a deep felt rejection of the institutions of Europe. Nevertheless, what is required is an engagement with the criticisms the EU faces. There should be no doubt, however, there is no room for the racism of Wilders or those like him. Engaging Euroscepticism doesn’t mean pandering to the manipulation of demagogues. Lies should be exposed, facts provided and information disseminated. But tackling Euroscepticism relies on more than just demeaning and belittling critics of the EU as populist or delusional. It requires hearing legitimate concerns from those who feel they have no stake in the European project and remedying their problems. While it may seem counter-productive to give more space to voices sceptical of Europe, the present strategy has clearly failed.

Silencing scepticism has only the consequence of hardening its rhetoric, forcing voters into the arms of Wilders and his hateful agenda. Bringing critical voices into the debate and demonstrating that the EU is open to criticism and reform should not be seen as a capitulation to Euroscepticism. While it may temporarily set-back integration, the long term potential of shifting the debate from whether the EU should exist, or how much is too much, to a more substantive discussion on what kind of Europe citizens want is a price worth paying.

The referendum was always about Dutch-EU relations, despite the best efforts of many to talk about Ukraine and EU foreign policy. It is unfortunate that once again Ukraine, a country torn apart by internal strife and external geopolitics, has been caught in the crossfire of a European quarrel. The Agreement should be passed, but not at the expense of once again ignoring the Eurosceptics. These are people whose resolve is only strengthened and cause only grows with each attempt at isolation. The only solution leading to a more stable EU that can continue on the path of integration is to bring its critics into the fold, rejecting the worst forms of xenophobia but not dismissing the concerns of those who feel left behind.

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