29th Nov 2021


One lesson from the Dutch referendum

  • Most of all, the Dutch vote shows us the failure of big governments and state-centralisation (Photo: Peter Teffer)

About seven months ago, the Dutch satirical website GeenStijl (“NoStyle”), managed to force the Dutch government to hold a referendum on the EU agreement with Ukraine.

Dutch politicians laughed at the idea of a website like GeenStijl being able to change the political field of the Netherlands.

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  • Politicians should look carefully at the Dutch case and tackle the problem before it is too late (Photo: European Commission)

But on Wednesday (6 April), 64 percent of the vote was against the EU Agreement with Ukraine, and the turnout passed the threshold of 30 percent.

Politicians believed the uproar would have died down again closer to the vote and that voters would be well-informed enough to vote in favour of the agreement.

That is also what everybody thought when Donald Trump announced he was standing for the US presidency - that it was all just a show and that voters would make a well-informed decision and not vote for him.

Trend in Western democracies

Although these two instances seem very different, both show as a trend that is prevalent in Western democracies: people feel disconnected to the political elite who supposedly force decisions upon the population which will only benefit the elite’s own interests.

Whether this is true is debatable, but it shows both a clear lack of political leadership among moderate political parties as well as a lack of communication skills of our politicians and government institutions.

Most of all, it shows us the failure of big governments and state-centralisation.

Yes, the economy of scale works on many fronts, but it is a mechanism that prevents individuality, a value in high demand in Western societies.

In a society where anything can be tailored and individualised through online services, people do not want a policy tailored for Europe - they want a policy that benefits them as a person.

There are two solutions to this problem: political leadership or decentralisation of the government.

The first option seems unlikely apart from political leadership from the extreme-right, which is not really the kind we are looking for.

Ideology in Western democracies is becoming obsolete as most mainstream parties are in general agreement on policies.

In a country like the Netherlands you cannot gain votes by claiming to be in favour of fundamental rights like the right to equal marriage or to abortion because every party except a very small one is as well.

The debate is thus not about what values we want our society to be based on but what should be the political system that enforces them?

One thing the European Union has often avoided, although subsidiarity is one of the first concepts you learn while studying European Politics, is the debate on what responsibilities should remain within the national state and why.

Tip of the iceberg

Generally it is assumed that apart from some responsibilities that the national governments want to keep, the European Union would be better at enforcing and creating legislation.

Subsidiarity was thus evaluated from a state interest. Now, a new framework that looks if an individual level of demand should be established.

If I were a regular citizen of the EU, where would I want the accountability for this issue to be concentrated? Moreover, how can we do that using modern-day technology?

Those are the questions bureaucrats and politicians in Brussels should ask themselves.

Even if the EU declines to answer these questions, it will seriously have to evaluate how it can answer the rise of populism.

The Dutch vote, largely against the agreement albeit with a low turnout, might just be the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Euroscepticism across the EU.

Britain’s referendum will be next and after today’s vote a Brexit seems the likely outcome.

Still, politicians in Brussels seem to think that a doomsday-theory rhetoric towards the voters is enough to solve these problems. Instead, they should look carefully at the Dutch case and tackle the problem before it is too late.

Marike Abrahamse is a masters student at the University of St Andrews and is a member of both the Dutch (VVD) and the European Liberal Party (Alde). This article reflects her own opinion


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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