The Other EU Referendum

Electoral Reform Society,

Posted on the 7th April 2016

With only 76 days until polls open in Britain’s EU referendum there is now a diminishing amount of time before the campaign reaches its zenith.

Yet, it may have escaped the notice of many Britons that theirs isn’t the only EU referendum this year, for yesterday, across the North Sea, voters in the Netherlands voted on Ukraine’s Association agreement with the EU.

The agreement between the EU and Ukraine would set up free trade between the EU and Ukraine and lower barriers to travel. This agreement must be ratified by every EU state. It has so far been ratified by the 27 other member states, and the Dutch are the last country.

Last autumn, Dutch Eurosceptic organisations and the popular blog GeenSteijl came together to start a petition on the bill ratifying the treaty. This petition hoped to make use of a 2013 law which allows citizens to initiate referendums on recently passed legislation. Some 300,000 signatures are needed for such a referendum, and the authorities received almost half a million, mostly collected online.

For years now, the Dutch have been seemingly becoming more Eurosceptic. The 2005 vote on the European Constitution, which 62% of the Dutch rejected, demonstrated an unease with further European integration fuelled in part by the fact that the Dutch give more money to the EU per head than any other country, and by Dutch unease with immigration (a particularly prominent theme in Dutch politics).

The crisis in the Eurozone has only served to make matters worse. The Dutch have taken a particularly hard line on bailouts of Southern European countries.

The final result was, as the polls suggested, a big victory for those against the agreement who won 62% of the vote, albeit on a low turnout of 32% (the referendum needed 30% turnout to be valid).

The referendum took on a proxy flavour. Rather than being about the details of Ukraine’s Association agreement it became about Dutch anger at the EU (the name of the campaign against the agreement took the name ‘Vote in Favour of the Netherlands’). Polling has shown that when informed of the nature of the agreement most Dutch voters agree with it.

Even many of those advocating a vote against the treaty seem to agree with this. The treaty is likely to be renegotiated, they say. The Netherlands might get an opt-out of some parts of it or the most controversial parts might be rewritten. Here is Ewald Engelen, an academic backing the anti-agreement campaign: “the genius of [the referendum] is that it has no consequence; the treaty will be ratified anyway. It is a crystal clear popularity poll: for or against the [political] caste – that is the question”.

Things aren’t quite that simple. What happens now the anti-side have won referendum is unclear, and this process of renegotiation will postpone the agreement’s implementation, which will, ultimately, effect Kiev more than Amsterdam.

But ultimately this is an expression of a sense of discontent with political elites and a feeling that the EU in particular is a distant body, which Dutch citizens have had little consultation on. This feeling is only increased by the fallout from the 2005 constitution referendum, as the Lisbon Treaty, which implemented most of the EU constitution, passed without a referendum a couple of years later. It is no surprise then, that Dutch voters disbelieve political leaders when they warn of catastrophic consequences of voting against.

This has lessons for Britain’s own referendum. It is of vital importance that voters are informed about what they are voting on and for, and the consequences both ways. But after the referendum, whichever way it goes, it is vital too that voters feel that they have a voice and a stake in the future of Britain’s relationship with Europe. Whatever the result, British relations with the EU will continue to shape the lives of citizens in the UK, and it is imperative that citizens have some sway over these decisions.

We put together a list of easy changes that could make a big difference to the European Union. You can read our report, Close the Gap here.

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