Monday

22nd Jan 2018

Dutch expected to vote on EU-Ukraine treaty

  • Repeat of 2005? It would be the first Dutch referendum on EU affairs since the No vote on the European constitutional treaty (Photo: Sebastiaan ter Burg)

The Dutch electorate is expected to be given the chance to vote on an EU-Ukraine treaty in a referendum, in what would be the first citizen-enforced plebiscite in the country's history.

On Sunday (27 September) Dutch citizens group GeenPeil announced it had collected 451,663 signatures, easily overshooting the 300,000 signatures required by Monday.

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However, a referendum will only be officially announced by the Dutch electoral council if it has verified the authenticity of enough signatures.

The signatures were collected thanks to an intensive online campaign by Dutch satiric blog GeenStijl, citizens group Burgercomite EU (Citizens' committee EU), and eurocritical think tank Forum voor Democratie.

They are using a law which came into effect on 1 July and which allows citizens to demand a non-binding referendum on legislation passed from that date onwards.

On 7 July, the Dutch Senate approved a law to ratify an association agreement between the European Union and Ukraine, signed by EU government leaders in 2014.

With the referendum, the campaigners want the Dutch to voice their opinion about the treaty, which is a step towards a free trade area. They fear the association treaty will be a precursor to Ukraine membership of the EU.

But there is also a more prosaic reason why they selected this treaty as a topic for a referendum: it was the first eligible one after the new referendum law came into effect.

"There is widespread discontent about the way the European project rumbles on", campaigner and vocal EU-critic Thierry Baudet told nrc.next newspaper Saturday, when their signature target was within reach.

"We are seeing a new democratic revolution here", he added.

Several Dutch MPs have already congratulated the campaigners. Populist anti-EU MP Geert Wilders called it "great" - he can be expected to campaign alongside the No camp.

Some pro-EU politicians have also also commended the ability to attract this many people.

"D66 is in favour of referendums, and we were in favour of the treaty", said Kees Verhoeven, MP for the centrist liberal party D66, adding that his party would campaign for a Yes vote.

The Dutch government, which will be in charge of organising the referendum, gave the initiative short shrift.

"It is a lawful right to organise these kinds of initiatives", interior minister Ronald Plasterk said on Friday, refraining from any praise for the use of the new democratic tool.

His colleague, deputy prime minister Lodewijk Asscher noted that the government will only contemplate what the consequences would be after a formal decision has been taken to hold the referendum. He also downplayed the importance of what would be a non-binding referendum.

"The European Union has bigger challenges than a Dutch referendum about an association agreement at the moment. I don't think this is keeping people awake", said Asscher.

However, while the referendum outcome would be advisory in nature, it could, however, deal a political blow. In 2005, when the Dutch government organised an advisory referendum about the European constitutional treaty, the subsequent No vote fundamentally changed the mood among Dutch politicians to a more critical tone.

And the referendum is likely to be held in the spring of 2016, right in the middle of the Dutch presidency of the EU. A No vote could be considered diplomatically awkward.

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