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18 April, 2016

On the referendum

This Wednesday, April 6, the Netherlands voted against the association agreement with Ukraine. Here, I will bring forward a few observations and conclusions

Kees Verhoeven is Dutch MP with the D66 party

D66, the party I represent in parliament, actively campaigned and doings so energised more of their own voters than other political parties such as the PVV (Freedom Party), CDA (Christian Democrats), VVD (Liberals) and PvdA (Labour). All D66-volunteers deserve a huge compliment! That we did not manage to convince a majority of the voters to vote for the agreement, was because of the fact that besides ourselves, only the foundation Stem Voor Nederland (Vote For the Netherlands), a few Ministers and MP Han ten Broeke (VVD) campaigned. VVD, CDA, PvdA, GroenLinks (Green Left), ChristenUnie (Christian Union), SGP (Reformed Political Party), but also civil organisations such as VNO-NCW (Confederation of Netherlands Industry and Employers) and FNV (Dutch Federation of Trade Unions) were rather absent. A missed opportunity. That the for-campaign could have won, was proved by cities such as Amsterdam, Utrecht, Leiden, Nijmegen, Groningen and Wageningen, and 15 other municipalities where a majority of the voters voted for the agreement.

The against-campaign (mainly consisting out of GeenPeil: NoPoll, from the website GeenStijl: NoStyle, Forum voorDemocratie: Forum for Democracy and SP: Socialists) was very active and deserved their victory. I congratulate them with their achievement. Although the fact remains that they initiated the referendum under false pretexts. For the initiators of Burgercomité EU (Citizens Committee EU) admitted that they want the Netherlands to leave the EU and that they do not care about Ukraine. Also, the against-campaign used a lot of untruths about the association agreement to scare people. Besides a made-believed EU-membership, these untruths went from mass immigration to billions of euro’s and from Putin’s rage to an explosion of broilers. Not pretty, as this association does not lead to such things.

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Although quite a few things in the organisation of the referendum went wrong (weird subsidies, not enough voting booths, etc.), the referendum did spark discussion and debate throughout the country. In the media, churches, pubs, community centres, living rooms: people were talking about our neighbour Ukraine, about the EU, about trade agreements, about geopolitical relations. That increases the involvement of citizens in politics and in this case, also European policy making. And we need that, seeing the growing group of angry and scared citizens. Politicians should go out and explain their voting in parliament to the voters way more often.

It should be noted here that Ukrainians themselves also did a huge deal of campaigning. This is a memory that I will cherish. Parliamentarians, students, representatives from the civil society: they all came to the Netherlands to talk to us, to convince us that the agreement was beneficial to both Ukraine and to Europe – and therefore to the Netherlands. I will also cherish the short trip I made in February to Lviv and Kyiv, together with D66’s political leader Alexander Pechtold, during which we met so many inspiring people.What our message was then, will always stay our message, regardless of the result of the referendum: we support you, and we will never let you down.

The turnout threshold of the 30%, part of the Consulting Referendum Bill, killed of the for-campaign. Opponents had a single task: vote against. Proponents had two options from the beginning: just vote for the agreement, or stay home strategically. For me, that was not a hard decision (don’t think so much about it, go out and vote!), but to my dismay many (especially in the big cities and in the Brabant province) were sensitive for columnists and public intellectuals. Not voting because you do not like referenda generally, this specific referendum, the organisation, or the topic, is not only elitist but, as it turns out, clumsy. The turnout threshold practically makes a consulting referendum a binding referendum. And that is not such a great idea – definitely something to keep in mind when we are going to evaluate the Consulting Referendum Bill.

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The result on April 6 was clear and the reaction of the entire Lower House was too: this result should be followed and that means that the Netherlands cannot ratify the association agreement. What specifically should happen now, is up to the Cabinet. The Cabinet should come with a reaction about which the parliament will debate. Then, Prime Minister Rutte should talk to the 27 other EU-member states. In the search for a fitting next step, the divided group of opponents plays a complicating role: one part of the group wants the Netherlands to leave the EU, the other part wants to get rid of the entire agreement, another part wants to scratch certain parts of the agreements, and there are also those who want to specify certain parts of the agreement or add exceptions for the Netherlands. Here lies an important drawback of referenda about international agreements: it is not only up to you. With the realistic risk of new dissatisfaction and more scepticism about Europe (as happened after the Netherlands voted against the European constitution in 2005), care is required.

This was the first time the Netherlands held a referendum that was initiated by the people – and it definitely was not the last time. The initiatives for new referenda are already announced. The trade agreement between Europe and the United States is likely to be the next referendum. Of course, negotiations about that agreement have to finish first – which will not happen before the presidential elections in the US, so in 2017 earliest – and of course it has to pass the Lower House and the Senate first (which is also a big uncertainty). However, we do know that the Netherlands will organise new referenda. And I am looking forward to that!

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