The ‘no’ vote in Wednesday’s referendum to give sweeping new surveillance powers to the security services has given the Dutch coalition government its first real test since taking office last year.
The Dutch voted by a majority of 49.5% to 46.5% against the new legislation, which is due to come into effect in May and has been described as a ‘Big Brother charter’ by critics and privacy experts.
Prime minister Mark Rutte said in a reaction that the government would abide by the referendum rules, which state that 30% of the electorate must take part for the vote to have any legal weight. Turnout in Wednesday’s vote was 51.6%.
‘The advisory referendum law requires us to look again at the legislation and that is what we will do,’ Rutte said in Brussels, where he is attending an EU summit.
Newspapers on Friday called for a major rethink. The Telegraaf said in an editorial the result of the referendum is a ‘powerful signal’ which cannot be ignored by the cabinet.
‘Spy services need to be well equipped but this far too-widely worded law will lead to a surveillance society in which citizens feel they are under constant supervision,’ the paper said.
Trouw too said the legislation needs to be amended. ‘Ignoring the result, as CDA leader Sybrand Buma has suggested, is not an option,’ the paper said.
The ‘no’ vote surprised ministers, given that polls leading up to the referendum all predicted a clear ‘yes’. The ‘no’ vote was particularly large in the northern provinces, in Amsterdam, Utrecht, Rotterdam and other major cities.
The result adds to the pressure on coalition partner D66 which has been criticised for backing the legislation in the first place, and for agreeing to scrap the advisory referendum option from the statute books.
D66 home affairs minister Kajsa Ollongren, who is responsible for the new legislation, has described the result as ‘disappointing’ but has not yet commented officially on what will happen next.
The legislation still has to be debated in the upper house of parliament at the end of April and senators could also be influential in forcing a rethink.
Whatever the outcome of the discussions which will now take place, the referendum result has had one effect already, according to Ton Siedsma of privacy campaign group Bits of Freedom.
At last there has been a lively and in-depth discussion about the balance between privacy and security, he said: ‘The issue of privacy has matured as a subject for discussion.’
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