On April 6, the Dutch electorate voted on the ratification of the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement. At the end of the day, 61.59% had cast their ballot against ratification with a voter turnout of 32.2%. In the aftermath of the referendum, doubts remain on why voters chose to vote as they did. Uncertainty also remains on what steps the government should take to adequately respond to the result of the referendum. What explains the result, what solutions are likely and what is the way ahead?
Researchers and journalists happily took advantage of the referendum to do research on the characteristics and opinions of voters. The results are interesting. According to an exit poll published by the NOS, the Dutch public news agency, men voted more than women (36 to 28%), but women were more prone to be against ratification compared to men, as were the lower-educated compared to the high-educated (70% as to respectively 60 and 49%). This, alongside geographical analyses of voting patterns, reveal that those who have, on the whole, been disadvantaged by globalisation tended to vote against the treaty.
The most important statistic was, however, already known before the vote. It revealed that 48% of those who planned to vote did so not primarily due to the advantages or shortcomings of the treaty, but either to support or oppose the EU. This lends credence to the idea that the referendum was in part an effort to get voters to reject the EU. The public admittance of some of the initial organisers that they intended the referendum to be about the EU as such and not about the treaty only reinforces this.
On the other hand, the majority of the campaign did focus on the content of the issue. The Socialist Party for example, one of only two political parties who decided to campaign for the referendum, on the other hand, tried to convince voters by claiming that the treaty was bad for the Netherlands, Ukraine and Europe. A segment of pro-European voters also voted no due to their agreement with this argument. Still this does not change the fact that nearly half of the voters did seem to give great weight to the effect of their vote on the EU.
Now the Dutch government finds itself in a difficult position. It essentially has three options: symbolic and minimal changes to the treaty; not ratifying the treaty at all; or rejecting the outcome of the referendum. The government has chosen to start with exploring its possibilities in Brussels. However, with the other 27 EU Member States, who have ratified the treaty after a long and arduous negation process (which was furthermore brought in peril by the aggressive foreign policy of the Putin government), it faces an unwelcoming crowd. Two options which have been suggested is that the government proposes to slightly change the non-trade related components of the treaty – those over which the European Commission does not have exclusive competencies – or to ask for an additional statement reiterating that Ukraine will not become a candidate for membership.
The opposition, including those parties who were in favour of the treaty, have spoken out in favour of not ratifying the treaty at all. They argue that the treaty is of lesser importance than acting in a way which goes against the narrative of the growing gap between citizens and politicians. At the same time, Thierry Baudet, one of the initiators of the referendum and a public figure of the right, offered himself as an advisor for the government on how to properly react to the no-vote. In the mean-time there is the silent presence of the option of ignoring the results after an unsuccessful bid to realize minimal changes. This, however, seems a path which none of the actors in Dutch politics favour and thus will try to avoid.
Eurominimalism and the limits of cooperation
As with the Dutch referendum on the European Constitution in 2005, most of the parties and social partners in favour of the treaty’s ratification had decided not to devote their resources to a strong yes-campaign. Insofar as they did campaign, they did so reluctantly and did not succeed in making a connection with the larger electorate. In the case of the centre-right VVD and the Christian democratic CDA, this was in part due to an ideological opposition to the referendum as an instrument of democracy.
Several political commentators have criticised these organisations for not learning from past mistakes. In their view, citizens can only be convinced to support the European Project if its opponents are confronted with a serious and active pro-European coalition. It remains to be seen, however, to what extent this is true.
The case for the European Project suffers from an inherent disadvantage in that most European citizens haven’t developed a strong European identity. Those arguing against it can always rely on the sense of national belonging which most citizens still feel in some sense or other. Narratives supporting European cooperation and integration have, for the most part, relied on factual narratives focusing on the material advantages which they will bring. This approach is increasingly failing to appeal to voters who have started to doubt its premises and the weight it should carry. A successful narrative in favour of the EU-Ukraine treaty would instead have had to rely on a sense of European identity which is lacking in the Netherlands.
The idea of building the European Project on the foundation of European identity has been around for a long time, but has never been properly translated into policy. Instead cooperation and integration have been mainly built upon the principles of the maximum amount of economic integration with minimal efforts at political integration and fostering European identity. This ‘Eurominimalist’ approach has also been the path followed by the Dutch centre-parties, especially the centre-right VVD.
The result of the referendum shows the limits of this approach to European integration and cooperation. However, going beyond this approach will not be an easy matter. Even if political support would be readily available at this moment it would take much time and effort to spread awareness of a European identity. At this point in time, the European Union is not only suffering from a democratic deficit but also has an additional identity deficit. This effectively means that, for now, the limits of integration seem to have been reached if democratic boundaries are to be respected.
Most political and social forces still don’t seem to make the efforts needed to counter the identity deficit of the European Union. This is why there are great opportunities for those who are first to seriously tackle the issue. The first party or movement which chooses to do this is the one who can set the terms for the debate to follow. Consequently, it is here that Greens can exert influence at an early stage to provide answers to the questions on what it means to be European: what do Europeans share? What distinguishes them from others? What is the quintessential ‘European way of life’? They can insert some of their values in the narrative of European identity and thus make a push for a Europe more in line with their own vision of society.
Moreover, the identity deficit and the democratic deficit of the EU are mutually reinforcing. As long as European citizens don’t feel European they will not think of or want to make use of the democratic instruments currently available at the European level nor will they push for the further democratisation of the EU. Instead they will opt either for stagnation or a reversal to the nation-state. By stimulating European identity, Greens would simultaneously bring closer its goal of democratising the EU and society as a whole.
It would firstly entail deciding on a common core narrative of European identity as Greens on a European level. This core narrative would then inform the specific message they bring out on European issues and on discussions on European identity. This also means taking practical steps such as making the European Union and European identity a part of the social studies curriculum during secondary education and defending the Erasmus programme whenever needed and expanding its accessibility whenever possible. In general, this comes down to between spreading a Green narrative on Europe, increasing knowledge about the European Union, and fostering connections between Europeans.