Dealing with discontent after the Dutch ‘No’

The Dutch have once again thrown a spanner in Europe’s works.

Eleven years after the people of the Netherlands rejected the European Union’s constitutional treaty, they have delivered another ‘nee’ – this time to an Association Agreement with Ukraine.

The vote was decisive – more than 60 per cent of voters opposed the agreement (albeit on a low turnout). But was it a ‘no’ to the agreement, or to the political and media establishment?

The Dutch are not alone

The initiators of last week’s referendum – from the grassroots group ‘GeenPeil’ – are clear. This was not a vote about Ukraine, but about the EU. The agreement was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The Dutch ‘no’ vote should be seen in that light. The winning campaign tapped successfully into a popular feeling of anger against ‘elitist’ greed, and arrogance.

It’s a mood that exists outside the Netherlands, too.

The Greek bailout, the migration deal with Turkey and interest rate decisions by the European Central Bank are examples of controversial decisions that many people feel excluded from. They voice their complaints – armed with the megaphone of social media – against actions that they feel they cannot control or scrutinise.

The evidence is all around us. Donald Trump’s success in the United States is fuelled by disaffection. The call for a Brexit in the UK – even from people in significant positions of power – is underscored with a message of powerlessness.

The popularity of the Pegida movement in Germany, the National Front in France and Geert Wilders (pictured) in the Netherlands has grown on the back of economic stagnation, fear and disconnect.

First they ignore you…

It is probably no coincidence that the outcome of this Dutch referendum is close to the outcome of the 2005 referendum. 60 per cent of the electorate seems to be disengaged from or disillusioned with politics, and keen to take the chances it can to call leaders to heel.

It is a phenomenon that is difficult for the Dutch political and media establishment to handle.

At first, the referendum and its initiators were referred to as ‘populism in action’. GeenPeil and its supporters were portrayed as an inferior, angry movement.

Then, a couple of months before the referendum and with the ‘No’ movement failing to budge, mainstream political parties began to scratch their heads. How do you respond to a movement that defies the existing politics, media and society molds?

Only when it was too late did the mainstream take the referendum – and the possibility of defeat – seriously. By then, it was way too late to start a meaningful discussion with the public.

Dealing with discontent

As the Dutch result shows, Europe’s political establishment is still struggling to keep up with widespread discontent. This is not solely a political problem, or a problem with democracy. It is a broader societal challenge.

There is an important role for civil society and businesses to play. They need to work on inclusion, increase accountability, and build trust.

What used to be unilateral ‘corporate social responsibility’ has to develop into a true dialogue with society on ‘shared values’. By doing so, some of the disaffected can be brought back onside – especially if there are jobs and prosperity for more people.

Civil groups and businesses can be intermediaries to restart meaningful international cooperation that has broad support.

Otherwise this ‘Nee’ may well be followed by many more ‘No’s, ‘Non’s, and ‘Nein’s.

Words  Wouter Dittrich and Willem Bonekamp (Burson-Marsteller The Hague) with David O’Leary
Photos  CC/Flickr neuskleuter; CC/Flickr stanjourdan; CC/Flickr


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