Dutch PM takes back seat on Ukraine vote
By Peter Teffer
The Dutch government is taking a back-seat approach towards the referendum on the European Union association agreement with Ukraine.
“We are not going to hit the road with flags and bells [and whistles],” Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte said in a press conference Friday (29 January).
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He was asked when the Dutch government will start its campaign to defend the EU-Ukraine deal, which will be put to a vote in a non-binding referendum on 6 April.
“When you say campaign, I think of elections, which this isn't. This is a referendum,” the Dutch PM said.
The referendum was set in motion in 2015 by a citizens’ initiative, thanks to a new law which allows people to call for a popular vote on any piece of Dutch legislation if they collect 300,000 signatures.
The question to be asked on 6 April is: “Are you in favour or against the law that approves the Association Agreement between the European Union and Ukraine?”.
“The government will, where you provide us the opportunity, appear in the free, open media in the Netherlands to explain why we are in favour. One doesn't do that with flyers and flags and the like. Foundations and private organisations can do that,” Rutte added.
The private initiatives have already begun fund-raising, and there are plans for campaign events arounf the country.
One foundation in the Yes camp is Stem Voor Nederland (Vote For the Netherlands). It’s launching a website and Facebook page on Monday.
In January, Dutch media reported that Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros is donating €200,000 to Stem Voor Nederland, through his Open Society Foundations.
Some in the No side criticised the presence of foreign funding in the national referendum, and last week sent a letter to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, asking it to reconsider its decision not to send electoral observers to the low countries.
While the referendum is a national affair, it has caught EU-wide attention.
Some in the Yes camp accused the No camp of 'helping Russia’.
The No camp criticised a recent interview in which European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker said a No would "open the door to a large continental crisis.”
For its part, the Dutch government is making €2 million in subsidies available for initiatives related to the referendum. Organisations can receive up to €50,000, individuals up to €5,000.
A government committee will divide the grants “evenly between people and organisations who are in favour or against, or who organise neutral activities”.
Meanwhile, the popular blog which was one of the drivers behind the citizens-enforced referendum, GeenStijl, has begun a grassroots crowdfunding initiative for a turnout campaign.
It has already collected 10 percent of the target goal of €427,939 - a figure chosen to reflect the number of signatures that were gained to ask for the referendum.
The referendum results will only be valid if there is a turnout of 30 percent or higher.
Some have complained the government is trying to keep the turnout low, by not helping municipalities enough in the set-up of the referendum.
On Friday, the Socialist Party, which is campaigning for a No vote, said it calculated there will be at least 122 fewer polling stations available than on a regular election day.
Earlier in January, interior minister Ronald Plasterk responded to a request from municipalities for additional funding to organise the second-ever national referendum in the Netherlands. Plasterk said he would provide them with €30 million to organise the referendum, €10 million extra than initially foreseen.
But Rutte said Friday that the government “is not trying to keep turnout low”.
In the 2012 national elections, turnout was almost 75 percent. In the, more recent, European Parliament elections, it was 37.3 percent.
The only other national referendum the country has ever held, in 2005, on the EU constitutional treaty, yielded a turnout of 63.3 percent. Dutch voters turned down the treaty with an overwhelming 61.6 percent of No votes.
Even though this vote was non-binding too, the result was so obvious that it was politically untenable not to turn the voters' wish into national policy.
One of the first opinion polls suggests such a landslide is possible again.
According to TV show EenVandaag, 53 percent of respondents said they would definitely show up for the referendum.
The poll, among 27,151 people who are regularly asked for their opinion, said 51 percent would “definitely” vote No, while an additional 23 percent said they would “probably” vote No. Only 13 percent were “definitely” voting in favour of the trade deal.
It’s a stark divergence from the political scene, where most parties are in favour of the agreement.
In a 2014 vote in the European Parliament, nearly all Dutch parties voted in favour of it, except the MEPs of the Socialist Party, and of the PVV, the party of populist anti-EU politician Geert Wilders.
It were also these two parties that were most visibly in the No side during the 2005 referendum on the EU constitutional treaty.
Socialist MP Harry van Bommel has said that his party is going to train “1,000 to 1,500 activists” to convince people to vote No. Campaigning would begin in February, he said, “with events, flyers, commercials in the media, radio, and television”.
For its part, the centrist liberal D66 party has put aside €50,000 to campaign in favour of the treaty.
“I am much more self-assured than in 2005,” said D66 leader Alexander Pechtold, who was interior minister at the time.