Jacobus Delwaide
April 2016

Bonfire of Extremisms: the Dutch Referendum Conundrum

"A great day for democracy," Dutch opponents of the EU Association Agreement with Ukraine claimed as the advisory referendum results were rolling in. "I learned an awful lot about Ukraine," a Rotterdam academic active in the opponents’ camp remarked, "it all was well worth it (the tens of millions in campaign money and the huge political disruption), we should have more of this."

The Dutch people appeared to think otherwise, though, staying away from the polls in their overwhelming majority, as a result of which the required 30 per cent minimum participation threshold was barely obtained (with 32.2 per cent - the lowest countrywide turnout ever). The manic claims of the Association Agreement’s opponents - democracy and the nation are under siege and on the verge of being betrayed - turned off the vast majority of the population, the columnist Bas Heijne noted: why jump through the hoop raised by political jokers? Moreover, the avalanche of arguments aired in the media, far from enlightening people, left them more befuddled than ever.

The advisory referendum was started by a couple of guys in search of an issue: as the brand-new referendum law was coming into force, they hit upon the EU Association Agreement with Ukraine. Confident of the support of like-minded parties – the extreme-right Party for Freedom (PVV, which split off from the Liberals) and the populist-left Socialist Party (SP, which has its roots in Maoism) –they proceeded with considerable efficiency, aided by an app that allowed them to swiftly collect (and amply exceed) the 300,000 signatures required to start up the advisory referendum process.

The centre-right liberal and Christian-democratic parties, attached to the principle of parliamentary representation and weary of referendums and of populism, didn’t feel they had a dog in this fight and remained largely aloof. By contrast, centre-left parties - the left-liberal D66, originally the driving force behind the new advisory referendum law, as well as the Green Left and Labour parties - did campaign in favour of the Association Agreement with Ukraine, D66 most actively so, ultimately feeling left in the lurch by other parties. It may be added that D66 (Democrats 66, formed in 1966) and Green Left (born from a 1989 fusion of various parties, notably the now defunct Communist Party) are the most outspokenly Europhile parties in the Netherlands.

For their part, the opponents of the Association Agreement with Ukraine banked on fear, suggesting that this agreement is a stepping stone toward EU membership, toward eventually massive, Greek-style payments (payments that would largely end up in the pockets of a corrupt establishment), and toward a major immigration wave threatening Dutch jobs. The Association Agreement suggests none of this, but these arguments did find resonance, particularly among the less educated. So maybe it isn’t a coincidence that Amsterdam, Groningen, and Wageningen, home to large universities, stood out among the rare places where a majority of votes were cast in support of the agreement. At the other extreme stands Urk, a starkly Calvinist fishing village where animosity against Brussels and its fishery regulations helped the no-vote to surpass a whopping 83 per cent.

Like other opponents, the leader of the populist-left SP, placidly provincial in outlook and demeanor, stated paternalistically that the Association Agreement is not in Ukraine’s interest. He added sanctimoniously that the agreement is superfluous, as Ukraine can be ‘helped’ via already existing mechanisms. In this logic, Ukrainians apparently do not know what is good for them; they must have been fighting (and dying) for the wrong cause. One organization behind the referendum had the gall to...

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