Thursday 04 June 2020

The Ukraine referendum was a thrashing the government deserved



The government and Brussels may have deserved the thrashing they got on referendum day but the results are a wake-up call for ministers and voters, say economists Rick van der Ploeg and Willem Vermeend.

There are only a few countries in the world where an advisory or binding referendum is part of the democratic tool box. It is generally thought to have too many disadvantages, reason why most have chosen a democratic system in which chosen representatives and administrators take policy decisions after having weighed all the options. Every four or so years voters judge their performance. This is the system that we have in the Netherlands.

The main disadvantage of a referendum is that voters are limited to either a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’. There is no room for nuance or arguments. Fact is that only enthusiastic yes and no voters take to the ballot; those who have no particular sentiment about the subject or don’t feel they want to vote, don’t. That leaves us with an extremely one-sided version of the real state of affairs.

A referendum about economic or financial issues has the potential to do serious damage to the economy and employment and can weaken the international position of a country. That is why binding referendums are very few and far between.

Since July 15 2015, a private members bill introduced by D66, Labour and GroenLinks has made it possible for citizens to initiate an advisory referendum on certain bills and treaties. A binding referendum is not possible in the Netherlands without a change to the constitution.

On April 6 the bill came into effect for the first time. Looking at the result, the question is whether the MPs are still happy about their bill. Opponents of the association treaty with Ukraine, PVV and SP voters in particular, voted in their droves and achieved a resounding victory: over 60% of voters said ‘no’. As a sufficient number of people in favour also turned up, the required 30% election threshold was achieved forcing prime minister Mark Rutte to reconsider the Dutch ratification of the treaty.

Not a celebration of democracy

According to the no camp this referendum was a ‘celebration of democracy’. We begrudge no one a good party but it really really wasn’t: almost 70% of voters stayed at home, and many yes voters are sorry they voted at all. If more pro-treaty people had stayed at home (some 300,000) the election threshold wouldn’t have been reached and nothing would have stood in the way of ratification.

They had, moreover, very good reasons not to participate. In an interview in the NRC two of the referendum’s organisers said the whole circus surrounding the treaty was simply an excuse. Their real aim was to use the ballot box to mobilise opponents of Europe and the cabinet to start a process which should ultimately lead to the Netherlands leaving the EU. They also made it very clear that the real aim was to damage the image of the Netherlands in the EU. If the reactions in the international media are anything to go by they did a good job.


The referendum result caused a media storm not only in Europe but the United States too. The general tenor of the comments was best expressed by a headline in the British press: ‘An embarrassment for the Dutch government’. The fact that Rutte and his ministers are heeding a small group of rabid Eurosceptics intending to do damage to their country and the EU also raised eyebrows. Of all 28 member states, only the Netherlands is being difficult. Word in international business circles is that the business climate in the Netherlands has been damaged.

The referendum winners are clearly not bothered by this. On the contrary, they are already looking forward to a referendum on the European trade treaties with the US (TTIP) and Canada. With the referendum law the way it is, chances are they will win this one as well. Fanatical and passionate opponents of Europe and multinationals will vote in their droves and the average voter, with no particular interest in the matter, will stay at home.

The organisers will launch clever internet campaigns, something the makers of the referendum law have not taken into account. If the cabinet wants to avoid more damage being done to the Netherlands it will have to adapt the referendum rules, or withdraw the law completely.

Wake up call

It has to be said that the cabinet as well as Brussels have only themselves to blame for this thrashing. The cabinet pro-treaty campaign, such as it was, was very poor compared to the opponents’ media savvy one.

Rutte is still failing to make clear to Brussels that the Netherlands insists the European rules be changed and that means greater national sovereignty and European rules only when they have a clear added value, for instance in matters concerning security and the economy.

At the moment the reverse is true and that is fuelling anger all over the EU. This can’t be ignored any longer. That is why we expect the outcome of the referendum to be a  wake-up call for policy makers as well as voters.

In the Netherlands some two million jobs depend directly on international trade, mostly within the EU. Hundreds of thousands of people are working in companies dependent on trade  with the export sector. All these people are voters whose livelihoods depend on business. They have nothing to gain from political parties wanting to leave the EU and certainly not from referendum organisers who want to damage the economy. That should be reason enough to go out and vote.

This column appeared earlier in the Telegraaf

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