Opinion Articles

The Dutch 2016 Referendum: Voice, No Exit

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On April 6 2016 over 4.1 million Dutch citizens expressed their opinion on the ratification of the Association Agreement between the European Union (EU) and Ukraine. With turnout at 32.3%, the 30% threshold required for the result to be valid in terms of the Advisory Referendum Act (ARA) of 2014 was reached, with a narrow margin. The verdict was clear: a minority of 38.2% of the valid votes was in favour, while 61.0% voted formally against the ratification but materially against the EU-Ukraine association agreement. Or against the EU in general, thereby setting the first step on the way to a “Nexit”, as several opponents of the European project preferred to interpret the result.

The referendum was held under the terms of the new Advisory Referendum Act, which allows citizens to request a referendum on (most) non-budget laws passed by parliament. Article 11 of the ARA states that:

if it is definitely decided that the referendum has resulted into an advice to reject, as soon as possible a bill will be introduced with the sole aim to withdraw the law or to make an arrangement for the law to come into force’ .

(emphasis added)

This means that the Dutch government had to act immediately. Instead, it decided to buy time. In the formal government response to the referendum outcome, the Minister of Foreign Affairs stated that the ratification process would not be continued “just like that”, but that the government should treat the referendum result carefully: “This requires a thorough process, for which the Cabinet will take the necessary time”. The government’s decision to maximally extent the interpretation of the clause ‘as soon as possible’, was criticized by all opposition parties.

2016 was not the first time in our history that a referendum resulted in a problem for the government. Although the Netherlands was, for a long time, one of the few advanced Western representative democracies without any referendum experience at the national level, the rare exceptions constituted problems for the government of the day. In the early days of the Netherlands, (namely the Batavian Republic, 1795-1806), the democratic mood of the time manifested itself in a national referendum in 1797 on a democratic, comprehensive constitution. This constitution was voted down by a majority of about 80%. In a second attempt, in 1798, a referendum was held on a new, revised and less ambitious constitution. This time over 90% of the voters supported the new constitutional basis of the Batavian Republic. The fact that the constitution had been changed may have impacted on this result, but what might have played an even bigger role was the fact that the time for campaigning was kept to a minimum, likely opponents of the new order were excluded from voting, and likely supporters in the military gained the right to vote.

Such questionable measures to guarantee a particular result - the originators of the 1798 referendum referred to it as ‘a free vote for acceptance’ - were not taken after the much more recent Dutch consultative referendum on June 1st, 2005, when the so-called “European Constitution” was rejected by over 60% of the voters, with a turnout of approximately 63%. However, the Dutch political elite of the 21st Century did not behave much differently from their 18th Century counterparts. The European Constitution was withdrawn by the government, but it was eventually replaced by the Lisbon Treaty. In June 2008 the Tweede Kamer de Staten-Generaal (Lower House) ratified the treaty and the Dutch citizens were not asked by way of referendum if they liked this treaty better than the European Constitution.

In April 2016 the Dutch government postponed the ‘immediate’ decision on the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement until after summer, notably after the United Kingdom European Union membership - or ‘Brexit’ - referendum, on June 23rd 2016. Nigel Farage, among others, called for celebration on the Dutch referendum result and explicitly linked it to the Brexit referendum: “the Dutch referendum was the hors d’oeuvre, the Brexit referendum the main course!” This framing of the Dutch referendum as essentially a referendum on the future of the EU and a “Nexit” should be considered premature, unfounded, and probably incorrect. More analysis needs to be done on the Dutch vote of April 6th and on the motives of the majority of voters of the no-camp. Most likely, the widely shared expectation that the agreement with Ukraine would be the unwanted first step by the Ukrainians towards full EU membership will prove to be an important reason for voting against ratification. Similarly, general dissatisfaction with the “Ever Growing Union” and the perception that, more often than not, the voice of the ordinary citizen is not listened to - if heard at all - in the process of widening and deepening the EU, fuels negative attitudes towards the ongoing European project. But a critical stance is not the same as a preference for a Nexit. In recent years, the Netherlands Institute for Social Research (SCP) in its population survey repeatedly asked about this Nexit option. The results indicate only minority support: in June 2015, for example, 24% stated that the Netherlands would be better off outside the EU, compared to 43% with the opposite view.

In his famous Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations and States (1970) Albert O. Hischman sketches two main ways of responding to discontent and dissatisfaction with an organization and its products. Apparently, within the minority of Dutch eligible citizens who actually voted at the referendum of April 6, 2016, a majority preferred to use their voice option, loud and clear. However, this should not be confused with a preference for a Nexit. It is now up to the Dutch government to respond, to either transform this critical voice into loyalty to the European case, or to run the risk of frustrating those who used the voice option to such a degree that exit may be considered the only alternative left.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

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