Cause and Effect in European Politics and Law

Dutch Referendum Proves Eurosceptics Wrong

Adelina Marini, April 19, 2016

On April 7th, 32.38% of Dutch eligible voters voted in a referendum for the approval or dismissal of the hard reached comprehensive trade agreement with the Ukraine, which precipitated that country's war with Russia. Out of these 32.38% of the voters, 61% voted against the ratification of the treaty by the Dutch parliament (The Netherlands is the only one of 28 EU members that has not done it yet). Those are a total of two million 509 thousand people. Supporting the ratification were 38.21% of those who cast their ballot, or a little over a million and a half Dutchmen. 0.79% cast an empty ballot, meaning 32 thousand voters. The population of the country, according to 2015 data, is close to 17 million people and eligible voters are 12 862 658, according to the Dutch central electoral committee. Voters, who participated in the April 7th referendum were 4 151 613. This means that 2 509 395 people managed to topple a common European treaty in a matter of just a few hours. 

We are talking about a minority in the Dutch national scope and an even more negligible number of people in a common European scope, considering the population of EU is a little over 500 million people. Is this a victory of Euroscepticism, or what! Actually, the result was announced as being exactly that all over the Union. What is being overlooked, however, is that this result actually disproves the eurosceptics’ claims that Brussels enforces its policy over member states, that too much national sovereignty has been seized, and that the nation state has been placed on its knees. It is exactly the opposite – member states are fully capable of turning the entire union inside-out and they do not need to do it with the full support of their population at that. Thirty-odd percent are sufficient, and that is not out of the entire population, but out of the ones who found voting worthwhile. 

The referendum in The Netherlands was reached thanks to a new law from last year. Since July 1st, 2015 every voter can ask for a plebiscite on newly adopted acts and treaties. The referendum has advisory properties, but this does not mean at all that the EU elephant is safe from the next mouse bite. Referenda can put every new act or treaty to a test of approval if it has not yet come into force. The result of the referendum is valid if not less than 30% of voters have participated. The procedure starts if not less than ten thousand people file a request. After that at least three hundred thousand need to send valid requests.

At the moment, both the Dutch government and the EU are at odds what to do after the mess with geopolitical consequences, created by two million European citizens. And in the middle of the Dutch rotating presidency of the Council at that. According to the Reuters news agency, the EC will continue with its commitments to the Ukraine, regardless of the result. This means that as early as this month there will be a proposal for waiving visa requirements for Ukrainian nationals. EC President Jean-Claude Juncker promised this to Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in March. "It may look as if we're ignoring the Dutch voters, but we have to keep our word to Ukraine, which has met the conditions," said an agency's source. If the EC proposes waiving the visas for Ukrainians, it must be approved by a qualified majority in the Council and consequently by the European Parliament. There are provisions to include a safeguard clause, which would allow member states to reinstate the visa regime in the case of a rapid rise in migration. Such mechanism is being enforced at the moment, too, towards the other states outside the EU, who have a non-visa regime. 

The Netherlands is not the only case, when a minority sets the destiny of the majority and even the direction of geopolitical flows. The Brexit, to a great degree, is the result of the small but very noisy UK Independence Party, led by MEP Nigel Farage. Until recently, the party did not have a single representative in the British parliament, but it was able to set the tone of British politics to the point of forcing the call for a membership referendum of the United Kingdom in the EU, which will be held on June 23rd. Based on this, the Dutch government will play dumb until then regarding the result of the Dutch referendum, fearing it could have a negative effect on the already extremely polarised campaign in Great Britain. 

It is true that in the British case there was a lot of aid from the fact that the ruling Conservative party has a strong Eurosceptic wing. It was, however, motivated by the threat of UKIP eating up their votes with its extreme Euroscepticity. 

After the success in the Ukrainian referendum, there are preparations in The Netherlands for new feats against European community policies. There are signatures already being collected for having a vote on the trade agreement with the USA (TTIP), negotiations on which are still underway and are complicated enough anyway. This will make voting even more confusing than with the Ukrainian referendum, for there is no treaty with the USA yet, and the subjects it will cover are far more numerous and complex than those in the trade agreement with the Ukraine. The consequences in both cases carry a heavy geopolitical charge. All would have been great if it was really about a triumph of democracy. In this case, however, it is about a parade of democracy. 

The Netherlands has tripped the EU on other occasions as well, but in the previous quite significant case it was about a true democratic move and on purely European legislation at that. In 2005, the Dutch were invited to approve or discard the draft European constitution. A similar referendum was held in several other Union member states, but the draft got rejected in just two – The Netherlands and France. Back then, their right to vote exercised 7 million 705 thousand of eligible voters, meaning 63.30%. 61.54% of them voted against the constitution and 38.46% were for. Due to the French-Dutch blockade, the European constitution remained history and the Lisbon treaty came in its stead. 

So, the next time when Eurosceptics tell you that Brussels is omnipotent and your vote does not count, remember the Dutch referendum of April 7th, 2016, when two million Dutchmen said “No” to a treaty on behalf of 500 million Europeans, concerning 44 million Ukrainians, as well as the relations between the entire EU and Russia.

Translated by Stanimir Stoev