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Apr 7, 2016 | 15:11 GMT

5 mins read

In the Netherlands, a Vote Is Commandeered

In the Netherlands, a Vote Is Commandeered
(MARTIJN BEEKMAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Summary

Voters in the Netherlands rejected a treaty establishing closer ties between the European Union and Ukraine in a referendum held April 6. While the referendum specifically asked whether the Dutch government should support the EU association agreement with Ukraine, Euroskeptic forces in the country turned it into a vote about the Dutch role in the European Union. The referendum is nonbinding and therefore the Dutch government is not obliged to respect its outcome. Still, the results show the strength of Euroskepticism in one of the founding members of the Continental bloc.

The referendum was organized by grassroots Euroskeptic groups that admitted that the real motivation for the vote was to create momentum for the Netherlands to eventually leave the European Union. These groups took advantage of a recently approved law that allows citizens to organize referendums if they collect enough signatures. The Party for Freedom, the Netherlands' main Euroskeptic force, was one of the strongest voices in the "no" camp and received support from like-minded political parties abroad, including the British group UKIP, formerly known as the UK Independence Party.

The April 6 results have to be viewed in context. Among those who voted, more than 60 percent rejected the pact with Ukraine. But voter turnout was only slightly above 30 percent, the minimum required to make the referendum valid. Voter turnout in Dutch parliamentary elections, by contrast, is generally above 70 percent. This means that Euroskeptic forces were adept at mobilizing support for their cause but also that a majority of Dutch voters decided that the issue was not important enough to bring them to the polls. Some may have even decided not to vote to keep the turnout low and thereby invalidate the referendum. It is also worth noting that, no matter what the Euroskeptic parties say, the vote was officially on Ukraine and not on the European Union, which means that not everyone who voted "no" is necessarily Euroskeptic. Many Dutch voters are genuinely concerned about establishing close ties with an unstable country such as Ukraine.

Government Reaction

Despite low turnout, the government led by Prime Minister Mark Rutte will find it hard to ignore the result of the vote and will have to recognize voter concern about the agreement without completely derailing it. The Netherlands is the only EU member state that has not ratified the EU-Ukraine association deal. According to Rutte, because of the referendum, the Netherlands cannot immediately ratify the deal and the Dutch Cabinet will debate the issue with the parliament and the rest of the EU members.

Some parts of the EU-Ukraine deal, particularly free trade measures, were already provisionally implemented in January, so the Dutch referendum will not completely stop it, at least in the immediate term. The Hague is unlikely to demand a full renegotiation of the agreement and will probably focus on revising clauses or declarations that suggest that the association agreement is the first step toward EU membership for Ukraine. The Dutch vote can also delay the implementation of the parts of the deal that have not been implemented, such as granting visa-free travel in the European Union for Ukrainian citizens. Russia, which has close ties with several nationalist parties in Europe, celebrated the referendum result.

Bad Precedent

It is notable that the first time the new law on referendums organized by citizens was used, it was to discuss an EU-related issue. The Netherlands has a fraught history with EU-related votes. Citizens were not asked their opinion when the country became one of the co-founders of the European Economic Community, the European Union's predecessor, in the late 1950s. Voters were also not asked when the Netherlands joined the eurozone. When the Dutch were asked in 2005 to ratify a project to introduce an EU constitution, however, the majority voted against it. France, which is also an EU co-founder, also voted against the EU constitution in a referendum.

The Dutch vote on Ukraine happened at a time when Euroskepticism is on the rise in Europe and when people are questioning the democratic legitimacy of the Continental bloc. Europe's lingering economic crisis is making voters reconsider the benefits of eurozone membership, while the migration crisis and the threat of terrorism are making voters doubt whether the principle of free movement is prudent. The subsequent, visible electoral rise of nationalist parties in Europe has also motivated moderate governments to adopt increasingly Euroskeptic positions.

The upcoming referendum on the United Kingdom's membership in the European Union is one of the clearest examples of this trend. Even if the United Kingdom votes to remain in the bloc, Prime Minister David Cameron's negotiations have opened the door for countries to make their own demands in the future. In the countries such as the Netherlands where national legislation allows for citizens to collect signatures and to organize referendums, Euroskeptic groups could feel encouraged to appeal to the electorate to advance their causes. In other cases, governments themselves may use referendums (or, more likely, the threat of referendums) to exact concessions from Brussels. Countries can also use these votes to ratify their nationalist policies. Hungary, for example, said it will hold a referendum later this year on the EU's proposal to relocate asylum seekers among EU members.

Euroskeptics across Europe will present the Dutch vote as a symbol of growing popular discontent with Continental integration. Political forces that want to freeze or even reverse the process will see the vote as a validation of their views. Moderate political forces, in turn, will have to come to terms with the fact that Euroskepticism is not going to disappear any time soon.

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