On April 6, voters in the Netherlands participated in a referendum on an EU treaty for closer ties with Ukraine.
Nearly two-thirds — 61% — voted no. Thirty-eight per cent voted for the EU-Ukraine association agreement. The percentage of people voting was 32%, two points over the validity threshold.
Regardless of the results, in a way, it is almost a moot point. First, the referendum result is non-binding on the Dutch government. Secondly, Prime Minister Mark Rutte and his coalition parliament plan to modify their terms of the treaty to satisfy public opinion or risk losing in national elections to be held early in 2017. Thirdly, trade parts of the agreement are already in force and 27 out of 28 EU governments have already approved the treaty.
The big picture here is the disenchantment many Dutch have with the EU project. It’s not so much an agreement with Ukraine, although that is part of it, but the popular change of heart of one of the six founding nations of the European Union towards the bureaucratic behemoth.
‘No’ voters say the EU is undemocratic and lacks transparency. They dislike the power Brussels has over their lives. They are worried about their own economic situation.
The Guardian explained that, for the Dutch government — as well as Ukraine’s president Petro Poroshenko, who wrongly predicted ‘Yes’ would win — the fear is, as Poroshenko said, this will result in:
an internal Dutch discussion about the future of the European Union.
The article went on to state:
The referendum’s Eurosceptic Dutch organisers have admitted the vote is essentially not about Ukraine but a handy hook to push a broader anti-EU agenda and “give citizens more say in Brussels”.
It was triggered after organisers used new legislation allowing citizens to voice opinions on legislative decisions if they garner more than 300,000 signatures.
On April 13, The Guardian interviewed several voters from the Netherlands to find out why they voted against the EU-Ukraine agreement. These are not old, fusty-dusty people, by the way. I highly recommend the interviews, which are considered reflections of both sides of the EU argument. Excerpts follow.
Joanne, a law student in Leiden, said she was happy with the result:
Euroscepticism in the Netherlands has lingered from the moment the 2005 referendum result was ignored and we lost power over our foreign policy. People have sensed that they still have the power to control their own fate and that they can punish politicians for acting against our national interests.
She also alluded to the dissatisfaction she had with the coalition government which played a part in her ‘No’ vote.
Hannah, a regional archivist in Noord-Brabant, also took exception to the policies of the coalition government and was worried about the economic situation as well as cuts in state care for the vulnerable and meddling with the educational system. As for the EU, she echoed Hannah in the growing Euroscepticism since 2005 and added:
There was a majority no vote in Noord-Brabant, although it was also the province that ended up having the lowest overall voter turnout … Many people believe that the needs of the EU are put above those of individual member states. On the other hand I do think many Dutch people understand there needs to be some European unity, just not necessarily in its current state.
Claudia, an assistant professor in Amsterdam, was also happy with the result. She grew up in a rural area, where Euroscepticism is more pronounced than in the cities. Overall:
That result also shows that Eurosceptic sentiments have been present for a long time. I do not necessarily see an increase. Instead, there might be more awareness among politicians that Dutch voters are sceptic about a political union with other countries, especially countries we lack common ground with …
The Netherlands does not have a single-issue, anti-EU party. Those who would like to vote against the EU have to choose between the far-right of Geert Wilders or the far-left parties. For voters like me, who thoroughly disagree with other opinions held by members of these parties, a referendum is a great opportunity to express anti-EU sentiments and to deliver the message that something has to change.
… The referendum is a great example of a bottom-up initiative to change national policy and I feel it is incredible over 30% turned up to vote for something most politicians did not bother paying proper attention to.
Marinus from Groeningen said:
A lot of people would in fact support much greater EU integration as long as it is done right. Even no voters in this referendum have admitted that they would support the EU, if it were a better EU.
I agree with all of these people, especially Marinus, with regard to our own Brexit referendum coming up on June 23, 2016.
None of us dislikes Europe and nearly all of us — except for radicals — feel we should uphold our own civilisation, regardless of the conflicts we have had over the centuries from the Dark Ages to the Second World War.
Although we have our cultural and linguistic distinctions, we are united in our greater common heritage.
However, a growing number of us no longer wish to be associated with unelected, unknown Brussels bureaucrats who have the power to impose laws on the member states which gradually erode our national sovereignty and personal freedoms.
Of Europe, we say: take it seriously but wear it lightly. Let the EU nations manage their own affairs and come together only for large member-wide decisions on trade and security that affect us all.
Yes, a decade of referenda by member states voting one by one to leave the EU would stop the Brussels gravy train in its tracks. That’s what many in government — even at national level — fear: cuts in grants and the shrinking of elite job opportunities at EU level.
That is why the media narrative, which largely centres on scaremongering about loss of trade, supports the status quo: staying in the EU.
No one opposing the current bloated European project says it will be easy to leave it. However, spending a few years roaming in the wilderness is a price worth paying when we emerge stronger and more sovereign than before.