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16th Feb 2019

Interview

Dutch referendum: No vote highlights failings of Yes camp

  • Sign pointing to polling station in Amsterdam's Sloterdijk train station. Two-thirds of voters did not vote (Photo: Peter Teffer)

Why did the Dutch vote No in the referendum about the EU-Ukraine association agreement?

Politicians will try to find an answer to that question in the coming weeks, but professor Claes de Vreese dares to make one prediction.

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  • Claes de Vreese: “It's poor timing to have an EU-related referendum if the government is unpopular.” (Photo: Universiteit van Amsterdam)

“The No vote does not have a single uniform cause,” De Vreese told EUobserver in an interview on Thursday (7 April), a day after 61.1 percent voted against the agreement.

De Vreese holds the chair of Political Communication at the University of Amsterdam's School of Communication Research, and has published about EU-related referendums for more than a decade.

“It is not the case that all No voters wanted to punish the incumbent government, it's not the case that all No voters fundamentally want to leave the EU, it's not the case that all No voters disagree with how the EU is handling the migration crisis,” said De Vreese. “It's a mix of arguments.”

He said the Yes side made a classic mistake that he had observed at other EU-related votes.

“The Yes campaign got off to a relatively slow and clumsy start. By that time, the campaign had been defined by the No camp,” he noted.

In fact, the Dutch government and political parties in favour of the treaty would not have had to look beyond their borders to learn lessons from past EU referendums.

The one previous time the Netherlands held a nation-wide referendum, was in 2005, when the EU's Constitutional Treaty was up for a vote.

The results bear striking similarities: Wednesday's outcome for the No vote was only 0.4 percentage points lower than what it was in 2005.

“The 2005 referendum was of course much more about the EU itself,” said De Vreese, who noted there are similarities beyond the figures.

In both cases, there were discussions during the campaign broader than the topic that was up for a vote itself. Also, both Jan Peter Balkenende's government in 2005, and the current administration of Mark Rutte, suffered in the polls.

“It's poor timing to have an EU-related referendum if the government is unpopular.”

In 2005, the No vote also did not have a singular cause, De Vreese said.

“There were also pro-Europeans who voted No because they felt the Constitutional Treaty did not go far enough. They were a minority, but it shows you the range of motivations.”

After the first Dutch No, which came days after a French rejection of the treaty, negotiations were held for a new document, which became the Treaty of Lisbon. This new version of the founding EU text was not up for a referendum in the Netherlands, although PM Balkenende did promise a “fundamental debate” about Europe.

That debate never took place, said De Vreese, who noted that in a way Wednesday's No is the government “paying the price of the broken promise”.

Regardless of that, it will be “impossible” to please all the No voters.

“Some might be satisfied if a minor text is change in the treaty.” But those that voted No because they feel that the elite doesn't listen will be more hard to satisfy.

The No voters make up 19 percent of the total Dutch electorate. Two-thirds of the electorate stayed at home.

This may partly be explained by the “unfortunate construction” of the Dutch referendum law that was introduced last year.

It allows for citizen-enforced referendums, which are consultative of nature but also have a voter threshold of 30 percent. That led to some Yes voters strategically staying at home in the hope the referendum would become invalid.

“The whole point of a consultative referendum is to have an unbiased view of the opinion of the people,” said De Vreese. That includes evaluating the voter turnout percentage to know about the interest in the topic.

He also criticised politicians in The Hague for promising beforehand that the government should follow the advice, regardless of the outcome.

As the Ukraine vote was the first experience under the new referendum law that was several decades in the making, the workings of that bill will also be analysed. One part that may be reconsidered is the 300,000 signatures required to trigger a referendum.

“Today is it much easier to collect 300,000 signatures than in 2000,” said De Vreese, referring to the mobilising power of social media.

Several prominent voices in the No camp have already announced they want more referendums.

That may lead to at least one good thing.

“The effect of having referendums is that they do improve the quality of the public debate,” he said.

The Dutch rooting for a No in the Ukraine referendum

Next week, the Dutch will cast their opinion on the EU-Ukraine association agreement. While the Yes side is fairly uniform in its composition and logic, the No side is a motley crew. Who are they?

Dutch might not ratify Ukraine treaty, PM says

Rutte said changing the text or not ratifying it at all were two options after Dutch people voted against it in a referendum. Treaty would likely survive in another form.

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