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16th Dec 2018

Dutch MPs vote on ending 'Ukraine-type' referendums

  • Could the Dutch demand a referendum on the bill that repeals the option to demand referendums? (Photo: Photo RNW.org)

The Dutch lower house of the parliament is voting on a bill on Thursday (22 February) that would make it impossible for citizens to demand a referendum on future EU treaties, as they did with the EU-Ukraine association agreement.

The four coalition parties supporting Mark Rutte's third government are expected to support the bill, but it will be a narrow vote. If just two of the coalition MPs fail to show up, the repeal bill could be rejected.

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  • Dutch citizens voted against an EU-Ukraine treaty in 2016 in a citizens-enforced referendum. The Dutch government now wants to remove that option from the democratic toolbox (Photo: Peter Teffer)

Opposition parties are almost unanimous in their rejection of the government position - believing it takes away a democratic tool from citizens after it was only used once in practice.

Most opposition MPs even want citizens to be able to demand a referendum about the bill that would take away their right to demand a referendum – something which The Hague wants to prevent.

300,000 signatures for a vote

Since 1 July 2015, Dutch citizens have had the right to demand that a non-binding referendum is held on any adopted bill, if they are able to gather 300,000 signatures of support.

A week after the new law went into force, the Dutch senate approved the EU-Ukraine association agreement, which governed trade relations between the two, but also contained political commitments.

An initiative was launched to vote on the Dutch approval bill, and the required signatures were gathered within three months.

The plebiscite was held on 6 April 2016, and the 32 percent of voters who showed up overwhelmingly rejected the treaty – 61 percent voted against it.

While the Dutch government did not have a legal obligation to follow the referendum result, the political establishment had put itself into a difficult position by saying before the vote that they would take the results into account if a threshold of 30 percent turnout was achieved.

For months, Rutte declined to simply accept or reject the public's verdict on the Ukraine treaty, but instead lobbied his fellow EU leaders to help him find a solution.

That attempt was delayed by the Brexit vote, and it was not until a summit in December 2016 when Rutte convinced his colleagues to adopt a political declaration about the treaty.

The declaration was said to address the concerns of the Dutch 'No' voters, even though it did not change the treaty itself.

Below expectations

Following elections in 2017, Rutte's centre-right liberals formed a new cabinet with three political parties. Their coalition deal included an end to the 2015 law that allowed citizens the right to demand a referendum.

The coalition agreement said that the non-binding, or consultative referendum, had been introduced as a step towards a legally binding corrective referendum.

"The introduction of a national consultative referendum as an intermediate step has not met expectations, partly because of a controversy about the requirements for holding one and because of different interpretations of its outcome. The government would therefore like a pause for reflection," the October 2017 deal said.

Of the four coalition parties, three had always had mixed feelings about the role of referendums. In particular the fact that international treaties – which need to be ratified through national laws – were subject to referendums was seen as unworkable.

'Not logical'

The centrist D66 party however was established in 1966 with the goal to increase democratic tools for citizens.

Introducing the possibility for referendums had always been a key point for the party, which sits with the liberal group in the European Parliament.

Ironically, it is a D66 minister – Kasja Ollongren – who is in the uncomfortable position of having to repeal the referendum bill.

She rejected the idea that the bill to repeal the referendum law could itself be the subject of a citizens-enforced referendum.

"I don't think it would be logical to have such a referendum," she has told reporters – a stance which opposition MPs heavily criticised.

All whips needed

The vote will take place on Thursday evening.

Whether citizens can request a referendum on the repeal bill is one of the questions put to a vote.

While all four coalition partners committed to support the original repeal bill, they only have the smallest possible majority in the lower house.

The entire opposition – 74 of 150 votes – have said they would support adding a declaration that citizens have the option to request a referendum on the repeal bill.

One opposition MP is reportedly unable to attend, but that still means that if two MPs from coalition parties go rogue – or are ill or stuck in traffic – the government could lose the vote.

The European context of the repeal bill is somewhat awkward, as the EU tries to find ways to reach out to its citizens after the Brexit vote.

No matter the outcome of Thursday evening's vote, though, there will be at least one more citizens-enforced referendum.

On 21 March, the Dutch will be able to vote on a bill that gives new snooping powers to the Dutch intelligence agencies.

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