“The democratic revolution has begun”, proclaimed politician Thierry Baudet after the April 2016 Dutch referendum on the EU’s Association Agreement with Ukraine met the minimum threshold of votes and showed a decisive ‘no’ to the agreement. But so far, the referendum has not set off a revolution. In fact, until now the Dutch government has constantly delayed or deferred from acting upon the outcome of the referendum. This reluctance to respect the referendum result has grave implications for the legitimacy of governance and will only spark a further rise of populism in the Dutch political arena. The government needs to act, or the parliamentary elections in 2017 could see a landslide win for populist parties.
The response of the Dutch government to the outcome of the referendum has been characterized by deferral and inaction. The referendum on the Association Agreement with Ukraine differs in one great aspect from the other referenda we have seen in Europe this year. Unlike the Brexit referendum in the UK and the refugee referendum in Hungary, the Dutch referendum was a bottom-up initiative and was neither initiated nor wanted by the Dutch government. The government never took the referendum seriously and was not willing or capable of effectively campaigning for a Yes vote for the Association Agreement. Hence, after the result was announced it took the government by surprise. This can be seen in the reluctance of the government to act upon the outcome. Despite high pressure from opposition parties, it took Prime-Minister Mark Rutte until November to declare that the official government statement will be delayed until after the EU-summit in December. At the summit, Rutte aims to argue for additional features to the agreement that would soothe the concerns of the Dutch citizens. Nonetheless, the government made clear it would continue to aim for ratification of the agreement, in spite of the no-vote in the referendum.
The obvious reluctance on the part of the Dutch government to act upon the no-vote stems from arguments that are not at all unreasonable. In order for the referendum to be valid, it needed a turnout of 30% of the Dutch electorate. This threshold was only minimally met with 32.2%. Moreover, the campaign for the no-vote was for a large part based upon misinformation about what the agreement exactly entailed. It was for instance repeatedly mentioned that the association agreement would lead to an inevitable EU membership for Ukraine. Equally important, the referendum is non-binding, meaning that the Dutch government has no official obligation to act upon the outcome of the referendum. But this does not justify inaction. What is at stake for the Dutch government is its democratic legitimacy.
The government is in no position to disagree with the outcome of a legally valid referendum. The basis of the Dutch democratic system is that it’s representatives act upon the will of the people. It would set a dangerous precedent if the Dutch government now chooses to marginalize this. There was enough popular support to hold a referendum on the issue, and academic research has shown that the no-vote was not primarily a disguised anti-EU or anti-establishment vote as often stated. The concern of the electorate was simply the association agreement itself. While the Dutch government may not have a legal obligation to act upon the outcome, it does have the moral and political responsibility to fulfil its democratic duties.
The crisis of democratic legitimacy is already visible in the Dutch political arena. Populist parties from both sides of the political spectrum have capitalized on governmental inaction and are surging in the polls. In March 2017 the Dutch electorate will vote for a new cabinet, and if the government has still not decisively acted upon the outcome of the referendum, these populist parties may be in for a big victory. The right-wing Freedom Party of Geert Wilders has profited the most from the referendum result. His party is virtually the biggest in The Netherlands at the moment, but still the Dutch government refuses to see the rise of an anti-EU and Islamophobic party as a signal that rapid action is needed. Wilders invigorated popular distrust in the Dutch democratic system even more in September 2016, when he called the Dutch Parliament a “fake parliament”. This questioning of the legitimacy of the parliament clearly undermines the foundations of the Dutch political system. Yet by ignoring the vote of the electorate ,the Dutch government has created a climate where these claims are unfortunately normalized in political discourse. In contrast, by making its intentions clear straight away, the liberal-social democratic coalition can prevent voters from drifting off to more populist and radical parties, and prevent a further loss of legitimacy.
The Dutch government should not wait until December to formulate a position. By then campaigning for the March elections will already be in full swing, providing an opportunity for populist parties to consolidate their success even more. The government needs to accept that it underestimated the referendum and can now do little else but respect the outcome. In order to retain democratic legitimacy and prevent a radicalization of the Dutch electorate, it is in the government’s own interests not to ratify the association agreement with Ukraine. Although this may present a backlash to further European integration, the consequences of ignoring the outcome will prove to be far worse.
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