In the summer of 2015, the Dutch parliament passed the ‘Consultative Referendum Law’, enabling citizens to have the government organise a national referendum if more than 300,000 signatures have been collected. In October last year, the Dutch Electoral Council confirmed that the first referendum would be organised, after having gathered over 400,000 signatures.

The initiative concerned the Dutch ratification of the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement. Later it was announced that the vote will be held on the sixth of April 2016. At the time of writing, polls suggest that the results will either be a no-vote or a failure to meet the minimal threshold for the vote to be valid. Despite the best efforts of both opponents and proponents of the Agreement, the debate has stayed mostly dormant, seemingly interesting Ukrainians more than Dutch voters. How, then, did this referendum come to be organised at all in the first place?

The initial petition was started by GeenPeil, a cooperation between three organisations on the Dutch political right, each of which have their own distinctive characteristics but overlap ideologically. The first and largest is GeenStijl (NoStyle), a popular online media platform of the populist-right which reports on news events in a sharp, sarcastic manner. Then there is the Burgercomité EU (Citizens’ Committee EU), an anti-European organisation advocating the termination of Dutch EU-membership, and finally the Forum voor Democratie (Forum for Democracy), a right-wing think tank whose head and most prominent member, Thierry Baudet, once labelled the EU a “foreign occupying force”.

Baudet and Jan Roos, a GeenStijl journalist known for his confrontational style, form the public face of GeenPeil. They belong to a generation now in their thirties whose political coming of age was characterised by a rejection of the ‘Third Way’ politics of the 1990s. In reaction to the closing of the gap between the centre-right and the centre-left, they adopted a form of anti-establishment politics against bureaucracy and technocratic governance. Left-wing anti-EU forces, such as the Socialist Party and the Party for the Animals, were absent in the beginning of the campaign call for a referendum, though since it was announced they have become actively involved in the no-campaign. Harry van Bommel, a representative of the Socialist Party, has even become one of the most vocal voices against the Association Agreement.

From the beginning the no-campaign has been based on a subtle mix of regular anti-European sentiment and propaganda of the Putin government. While some facts are accepted – such as that the rebels in Ukraine are supported by Putin and that the conflict concerns resources and the reestablishment of Russia’s imperial sphere – they have also incorporated central themes of Putin’s propaganda narrative. The Association Agreement is portrayed as a first step towards full EU membership; that closer cooperation with Ukraine would compromise Russian sovereignty; that the negotiations (and not political pressure exercised by the Putin government) led to the Euromaidan movement; and that the Ukrainian government has neo-Nazi tendencies.

At the same time, the EU is portrayed as a leviathan structure; hostile to democracy with colonial ambitions in Ukraine. In their eyes, the EU is being controlled by a technocratic clique which is indifferent or even condescending towards common citizens. The mixing of these two narratives has meant that themes which played a large role in the Eastern European expansion of the EU in the early 2000s, such as migration and the loss of jobs, have moved to the background. The Eurosceptic left hasn’t tried to change this, but has adopted this hybrid narrative as its own.

One should not, however, make the mistake of thinking that GeenPeil called for this referendum out of great concern over the strengthening of European ties with Ukraine now that its relations with Russia have become increasingly hostile. The choice for this subject was never actually a strategically underpinned decision, but rather the product of circumstances, as it was the first major issue on the table since the Consultative Referendum Law entered into force in the Netherlands.

In their own expectations, a no-vote will not even have the effect of blocking the Agreement, claiming that “Brussels will never allow this to happen”. The referendum is thus not so much an attempt to block the treaty as one to “stimulate the dormant discussion about democracy itself, and improve the debate in general” as a GeenPeil campaign video for the organisation of the referendum stated. However, most actors have interpreted this as an effort to intensify their diatribes against European cooperation. Jan Roos has been one of the few prominent figures to keep to this statement. Instead of campaigning against the Agreement, he has focused on motivating citizens to go vote on 6th April and has even claimed to be personally in favour of the AA and reportedly plans to vote accordingly.

The yes-campaign, on the other hand, has had a hard time to establish itself in the first place. Except for the liberal party, D66, no significant actor has seriously tried to advance the cause of the treaty. The Dutch Greens, GroenLinks, have declared themselves in favour, but like most other actors haven’t put great effort into a yes-campaign. Even the Dutch government, who agreed to the Association Agreement, has chosen not to campaign in favour of the treaty. As with the 2005 referendum on the European Constitution, pro-European groups have mostly chosen to stay more or less passive.

In so far as there has been a yes-campaign, it has tried to keep the discussion focused on the content of the Agreement itself. Opinion-makers in favour of the Agreement have tried to convey the message the message that it has economic benefits and is necessary to improve the rule of law, humanitarian, and particularly LGBTIQ rights in Ukraine. Of these, only the topic of LGBTIQ rights has found slight resonance with the Dutch public.

The municipalities charged with organising the referendum have been equally unenthusiastic, often deciding to open far fewer voting stations than during other elections. This much to the dismay of the no-campaigners who have tried, with mixed success, to force municipalities to open more voting stations through the judiciary.

This general disinterest in the subject of the referendum indicates a certain failure of the no-campaigners who hoped to use the referendum as a means to spread their anti-European message. This, however, seems only to work with big iconoclastic subjects which touch the heart of European integration, such as the 2005 European Constitution, the North-South economic divide or the refugee crisis. The EU-Ukraine AA seems to be too technical and too abstract to serve as a proxy for a wider debate on the EU.

Participatory democracy against progressive politics?

The referendum and the accompanied debate have proven to be representative of the shifts in which European politics is undergoing at this moment. The progressive movement will inevitably be affected as well by these changes and it is important to form a response to them in time.

The ideological motivations of some actors in this referendum are worrying. The open propagation of Putin’s narrative is still frowned upon in the Dutch public sphere, especially after the MH17 plane crash. In The Netherlands, the shooting down of the plane is widely believed to be perpetrated either by separatists or by the Russian military. The incorporation of elements of Putin’s narrative by GeenPeil risks normalising propaganda. Geert Wilders, leader of the PVV, has already been moving closer to Putin in recent years, attending conferences together with United Russia politicians and closely associating himself with Marine Le Pen, who is openly pro-Putin and financed by him.

Nevertheless, it is important to recognise that Association Agreements, a type of partnership treaty which the EU has with countries all over the world, are by no means neutral. They contain a raft of politically contestable measures (e.g. extensive economic liberalisation) and can have significant geo-political consequences, not all of which fit in comfortably with progressive politics. This tension between the wish for European cooperation on the one hand, but scepticism towards the practice of free trade on the other, has proved one of the complicating factors for the left. Likewise, much of the criticism which anti-European groups voice towards the democratic shortcomings of the EU can find at least some resonance with progressives. It has proven a difficult challenge to address these and to still argue for further European integration at the same time in a way which resonates with citizens.

An equally significant development is the fact that the right chose a referendum as the means to contest this treaty. Anti-European coalitions and organisations have increasingly been appealing to direct forms of democracy as a means to resist further integration. This is in line with the increasing localisation of Dutch politics of the last twenty years. Local political parties have steadily increased in number over the years, many government competencies have been devolved (and sometimes simply dumped upon municipalities) and the ‘not-in-my-backyard’ phenomenon has become well-entrenched. Dutch citizens have increasingly come to doubt the legitimacy of decisions taken in higher levels of government. Thus, the idea of the referendum as a legitimate political tool has gained much more currency in recent years. This may very well be reinforced by the several other prominent referendums in Europe in recent years.

At the same time, it looks as if this development towards more direct democracy in politics seems to primarily come at the expense of progressive politics. The referendum on the EU-Ukraine Agreement, which isn’t unambiguously progressive as pointed out above, is not the only example of this. There have, for example, also been calls for local referendums on the sheltering of refugees. This confronts progressives with the question whether one of its main traditional goals, making politics more participative and more local, might not be at odds with its other ideals.

However, the choice for a referendum also says something about the politics of the European far-right. In recent years it has been working at the erosion of the balanced system of government which has been put into place in Europe. In order to attain their goals they have been trying to bypass the regular controls of government. In countries such as Poland, Hungary and Turkey this has been attained through state reforms. In the Netherlands this hasn’t been a possibility and the referendum has proven to be the closest available. There shouldn’t be any naivety though on the side of progressives that this is the goal of the far-right.

It is still unclear what will happen after a no-vote. The Tweede Kamer (the House of Representatives), including representatives of the governing coalition, has said that it will ‘respect’ the outcome of the referendum. What this means is not entirely clear though. Some representatives have clearly expressed that it means that the Agreement will not be ratified if a no-vote will be the result, but it is not certain whether this is the general opinion of the representatives.

One possible result to non-ratification of the Agreement after a no-vote is that the EU will rewrite the treaty as to exclude the Netherlands. This might, however, set a precedent for future treaties and agreements which the European Commission might not be willing to risk. If the Agreement will fail due to Dutch non-ratification it remains to be seen if and how the EU will try to strengthen its ties with Ukraine. In the case of an insufficient turnout the treaty will be safe, but it will not be a good sign for the state of Dutch democracy.

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