29 September 2015

A campaign for a non-binding Dutch referendum on the EU’s Association Agreement with Ukraine has garnered almost half a million signatures over six weeks, well above the threshold of 300,000 set for this newly created direct democracy tool for Dutch citizens which only entered into force at the beginning of July. The Dutch government had already signaled that if the threshold were met the referendum will take place in Spring 2016, which coincides with the Netherlands’ holding the EU’s rotating Presidency in the first half of the year.

Who is behind the referendum campaign?

The organisors of the referendum are the eurosceptic think-tank Forum for Democracy, the eurosceptic news website Geenstijl.nl (which gained notoriety for exposing the practice of MEPs signing in to claim their daily allowance before sodding off) and Burgercomité EU, the campaign for a full referendum on EU membership. Geert Wilders, the leader of the populist anti-EU and anti-immigration PVV party which is currently leading in the opinion polls has been an enthusiastic supporter of the campaign, although the organisers have done their best to keep their distance from him and party politics in general.

Is this a pro-Putin, anti-Ukrainian campaign?

The VVD, the main party in the Dutch coalition, has dubbed the organisers of the initiative as “friends of Putin”, a sensitive accusation in the wake of the shooting down of flight MH17 last year. The question of the EU’s relations with both Russia and Ukraine has been a factor in the campaign; the Association Agreement is unpopular some quarters as there are fears Ukraine will benefit from greater financial support from Dutch taxpayers and that the move to remove visa requirements for Ukrainians will lead to greater immigration from that country.  There are also concerns that the deal effectively commits the Netherlands to side with Ukraine in its conflict with Russia.

However, that said, this should first and foremost be seen as a proxy for many Dutch citizens’ desire for a broader debate about the EU and the direction it is heading in. Given that a full on referendum about EU membership is explicitly excluded in the legislation establishing the referendum mechanism, campaigners latched onto the EU-Ukrainian Association Agreement as the best option for forcing the debate. They needed a piece of EU legislation which was yet to come into force and upon which they could hang their broader concerns, this agreement seemed to fit the bill. Thierry Baudet, an author and academic who launched the Forum for Democracy has said that “We will put the question of the EU on the agenda with a broad focus on all aspects of the EU.” More generally, it is also reflective of the wider anti-establishment mood that is sweeping across much of Europe.

Will the result be respected, given that it’s non-binding?

The Dutch parliament has already approved the deal, but under the new law it will have to return to the issue and hold a second vote – assuming turnout exceeds 30%. Given that this is the first referendum of its kind its hard to predict the turnout, but logically, if the idea that this is proxy vote for broader concerns around the EU takes hold, then it seems entirely possible the threshold could be reached (equally it is not hard to imagine fewer than 30% turning out just to vote on the Association Agreement). Either way, the Agreement will not enter into force on January 1st 2016 as originally planned.

There has to date been no specific polling on the Association Agreement, but a recent poll found 73% of Dutch voters oppose full EU membership for Ukraine at this moment in time. A very different proposition, but it may provide some indication of concerns about deeper links with Ukriane. If voters reject the Agreement, the VVD has already declared that its “stance won’t change”. However, the other governing coalition party, the centre-left PvdA, has refused to specify how they would act in such circumstances. The situation also presents a big challenge for the liberal, pro-EU D66 party which has supported a greater role for direct democracy but which has opposed the referendum campaign. Indeed Geenstijl actively used D66 leader Alexander Pechtold’s claim that “Europe is too complex to discuss in a referendum” as a means of boosting support for the referendum.

Meanwhile, the centre-right Christian Union party which supports the Agreement has said that “if we’re overruled [by the people], we need to know our place.” There is a real risk therefore that if the voters reject the Agreement, Dutch MPs will feel compelled to do likewise with huge consequences for the EU’s policy towards the Ukraine and its relations with its neighbours more broadly. An EU diplomat told The Times: “If the Dutch vote No, it will be another nightmare.”

What are the wider implications?

In many ways, the demand for another referendum on the EU is rooted in the failure of the Dutch and EU establishment to respond adequately to the rejection of the European Constitution in 2005 given that it was imposed via the backdoor in the form of the Lisbon Treaty. In fairness, the Dutch have done more than most governments to address public concerns about the extent of the EU’s powers but it is clear that this has not been sufficient for much of the Dutch public.

With the debate likely to stray well beyond the Association Agreement, given the proximity of the Dutch referendum to the upcoming UK referendum, this could also turn out to be an unexpected boon for the UK by demonstrating that it is far from the only member state in which much of the public has concerns over the direction the EU is heading in and by prompting wider public discourse on the EU in another major member state. This could in turn help to generate momentum for the kind of EU reform the UK is pushing for.