The other referendum

It could not come at a worse time for the Dutch government.

On 6 April, right in the middle of the Netherlands’ Presidency of the Council of the European Union, the country will hold a referendum on ratification of the EU Association Agreement with Ukraine. And it is causing headaches for Dutch political leaders.

The main reason is that this is not really a vote about economic and political relations with Ukraine. It’s about Europe.

Seizing the moment

A grassroots group, GeenPeil, wanted to give voice to growing concerns among some Dutch people about increased EU integration. The EU-Ukraine deal was the perfect opportunity.

The group easily secured sufficient backing for a referendum (nearly 50 per cent more than the 300,000 signatures required by law). It was a wake-up call; a moment to make Dutch politicians take the GeenPeil initiative seriously.

Referenda are rare in Dutch politics, and are non-binding. A negative outcome, however, would require new votes on the issue in both Chambers of Parliament.

The mainstream mobilises

The Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte (pictured), stated that his government will back a ‘yes’ vote – in support of the agreement – but not conduct the official campaign.

Business organisations – like the powerful lobby group VNO-NCW – are also actively campaigning for the agreement, while the ‘no’ campaign consists of independent groups and two opposition political parties: the Socialist Party, and Geert Wilders’ anti-immigrant Party for Freedom (PVV).

Dutch campaigns rely heavily on government subsidies. A large number of groups and individuals applied for the €2m funding available for the referendum – an indication that grassroots initiatives will dominate the campaign.

Difficulties in organising the referendum – a low number of polling stations, late allocation of grants, and so on – show the Dutch political system has not yet adapted to this type of citizen-led initiatives.

This feeds into the narrative of the ‘no’ campaign – that the establishment is deliberately obstructing ‘unwanted’ citizen involvement.

International involvement

The referendum is not solely a Dutch affair.

American billionaire George Soros has pledged €200,000 to the pro-agreement campaign. Ukraine’s President, Petro Poroshenko (pictured), said that the referendum “deliberately or unintentionally” plays into Russia’s hand.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker echoed this point, saying that a ‘no’ vote “could open the doors to a continental crisis”.

Scenarios and polls

If the referendum were held today, it would probably produce a ‘no’-vote – based on a coalition of Eurosceptic, anti-immigrant and anti-government sentiment.

EU-UkraineThe government’s main hope is that the turnout fails to reach the 30 per cent threshold to be considered valid.

Should more than 30 per cent of voters cast a ballot, troubles lie ahead in the governing coalition. The junior partner, Labour (PvdA), has indicated that it would not dismiss a clearly negative outcome – but this is not a position shared by the PvdA Foreign Minister, Bert Koenders.


With the association agreement already ratified by all 28 member states, the referendum will not stop the EU-Ukraine deal. But it does have the potential to cause delays and influence other EU issues.

A clear ‘no’ vote will undoubtedly lead to headaches for Rutte and Koenders (pictured), both domestically and in the EU.

While most attention is on the more existential question being posed in the UK in June, this referendum is a bellwether for general dissatisfaction (or satisfaction) with this EU.

For supporters of the EU, the challenges continue – and multiply.

Words  Wouter Dittrich (Burson-Marsteller The Hague)
Photos  CC/Flickr thisisbossi; (c) European Union, 2016; CC/Flickr ministeriebz


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