Over the course of the past decade or so, the Netherlands has had two opportunities to snub the EU elites and it has not passed on either of the two: first in 2005 when the country voted against the Lisbon Treaty and then yesterday when the Dutch held a popular vote on the EU-Ukraine trade deal.
In their revamped obstinate enthusiasm to stand up to the European Commission, the Dutch electorate have delivered a symbolic blow to the EU’s plans and to the Dutch government’s reputation.
While only a third of the eligible voters cast their ballot yesterday, almost two-thirds of those voted against the EU-Ukraine association agreement. The referendum is valid (the threshold being 30% of the turnout) but it is not binding. So what does this mean in practice?
Let us be honest; the result is an embarrassment for Mark Rutte’s government which is currently presiding over the EU Council and yes this also causes a serious headache for Jean-Claude Junker. It is also a significant hurdle in the EU’s half-baked attempt to stabilizing the situation in Ukraine, a country for which yesterday’s vote will be a reminder of just how difficult the EU integration process can be.
But the results were not all gloom and doom. For some, that is. After all, where there are losers there must be victors. Those celebrating the outcome include the entire anti-EU movement starting with the leader of the Dutch populist PVV, Geert Wilders and ending with Marine Le Pen, Nigel Farage or anyone else who would like to see Brexit, Nexit, Grexit or other exits become reality.
One other apparent beneficiary of yesterday’s vote is Vladimir Putin for whom the result is a notable victory and whose influence in Ukraine and Eastern Europe grows in proportion to the EU’s disunity.
Considering all of the above, one could see why it would make more sense for the Dutch government to ignore the outcome of the vote and ratify the EU-Ukraine association agreement regardless of the results – for the sake of saving the credibility of the EU as well as the Netherlands.
After all, only some 32% of the electorate found it important enough to vote on Wednesday. Just about enough to pass the threshold but perhaps not enough to boast about the vote’s legitimacy. Furthermore, while of those who did vote about two-thirds voted against the agreement, on the whole, this represents “only” about a fifth of all eligible voters. Again, is this legitimate enough?
Another argument the government could use to justify it overlooking the vote is the assumption that people did not actually vote on the substance of the deal but rather with other intentions in mind – for instance, the national politics or their anti-EU sentiments. Therefore and in a slightly condescending logic it could be argued that people did not express their disagreement with the association agreement as such.
Be it as it may, no amount of technical reasoning of such kind can seem as a credible alternative to those who claim that the vote must be honoured in the name of the democratic principles. It will take some time before the government will make its final decision on the matter but the country’s Prime Minister has already carefully conceded defeat and said the ratification may be reconsidered. That is a positive development.
Democracy that has been turned into an inconvenience of occasional elections and referenda results, which are accepted only if and when they deliver the anticipated outcome, becoming a tool that is sooner or later abused by the extremist forces within its midst.
This is particularly worrying when we look at the EU at large. The rise of the anti-system parties and anti-EU movements is nothing but a demonstration of disengagement of the populations with the way things are run in the EU.
Not second-guessing the motivations with which the Dutch citizens voted in the referendum and notwithstanding the suspicion that the majority of them most likely never read the association agreement on which they voted, one cannot help but conclude that while the “no” vote may be a gamble that will have serious consequences for Ukraine, the EU and the Netherlands, had people felt connected enough with the EU and had they felt they had more of a direct responsibility for it, they might have never gambled this way in the first place.
There is no denying that the Dutch referendum is bad news for Ukraine. But ignoring its outcome and pressing ahead with the ratification regardless of the result would be even worse news for the EU. Not least because it would reinforce the anti-EU sentiments. It would give the Eurosceptics a stick to beat the rest of us with.
Instead of trying to rig the system so that it generates the outcomes we like, perhaps the EU establishment and mainstream national politicians should try engage in an argument with the citizens and Eurosceptics. Engage in an argument about the value, not just the cost of the EU. Engage in an argument which would counter-balance fear with hope. This means not only debating in the traditional sense of the meaning but also a structural reform of the decision-making of the EU at large. Making the EU more relatable and giving its citizens the sense of its ownership must be the goal and outcome of such a reform.
Once we have done that we can feel confident that democracy and its tools will not be perceived as a threat to us but rather as an opportunity to be exploited for the benefit of our common destiny.