Trouble brewing in the Netherlands
By Pim Beaart, Netherlands, economics & politics editor at Veren Of Lood:
The referendum in the Netherlands on April 6th is going to cause a lot of trouble, possibly axing the strong Dutch commitment to the European project.
The plebiscite is about the Association Treaty between EU and Ukraine, into which the EU inserted some curious clauses about military cooperation and such. It is not a trading treaty per se, since those are the sole responsibility of the European Commission and would not require ratification by the member states.
Another fact that points toward bigger issues at stake is the last-minute involvement of the US government that recently urged Dutch voters to vote YES.
Although Parliament already ratified the Ukraine Treaty, it did so under the provision that under Dutch Law it might be open to a challenge by a plebiscite. The road to such a plebiscite is so difficult that it obviously was never meant to be possible. But the immensely popular Dutch anarcho-liberal blog Geen Stijl managed to gather 470,000 signatures, way more than the 350,000 required by law. A lot of signatures in a country with a total population of 17 million!
And it forced the government to organize the plebiscite.
Though the formal outcome is not binding, it seems unlikely that the ruling coalition will be able to even partially ignore its result. The coalition of Social Democrats and Liberals has only a fragile majority in parliament. With elections coming in March 2017, unless the government falls within the next two months, disregarding the result is a road to political disaster.
Polling consistently shows a halving of the liberal party and the annihilation of the Social Democrat party that might lose as much as three quarters of its current seats in parliament.
As if this were not sufficiently difficult for the European Commission, there’s the subsequent Brexit referendum in the UK. The time span between both referendums is such that the Dutch government won’t be able to postpone a decision on whether or not to disregard the outcome of April 6th, in a valiant attempt to avoid a Brexit and the troubles that torpedoing the Association Treaty with Ukraine (subject of the Dutch referendum) will cause.
In short: Disregarding the outcome on April 6th guarantees that the Dutch government will fall without hope of revival in the foreseeable future. Worse, it might also sink the chances of the Cameron-government in the UK to prevent a Brexit.
Polling shows that the decision in the UK hangs very much in the balance. But a Dutch government decision to ignore the results of its own referendum, felt as purely antidemocratic, will arouse more distrust in the UK of Brussels and of the UK government’s promises about the special status within the EU that the UK craves. The British people will also remember what was promised in the Scottish independence referendum last year, and what remained of it after the Scots decided to remain.
History plays a part. The British government has a bad record of keeping promises made during referendum campaigns. And the Dutch government faces a similar problem.
In 2005, the Dutch rejected the European Constitution in a referendum with a very strong 61% against 39%. Upon which the Dutch government decided not to take chances that might hamper the ambitions of the Eurocrats, accepted some minor changes in the rejected Constitution, and ratified it as The Lisbon Treaty, without a referendum. Although this fooled nobody, the Dutch political class felt it had done its job — particularly towards the EU.
However, Dutch politics has never been the same again.
Knowing the extent of its own unpopularity, as well as that of the EU, the Dutch government decided to try a course of obstruction. A turnout of less than 30% could be safely ignored because the referendum law states so. This was shown by underfunding the polling preparations, causing a 10% fewer polling stations to be opened on April 6th than usual. And strangely designed ballots appeared, where only the small white dot may be filled in for the ballot to be valid.
Despite little media coverage, the most recent polls signify an expected turnout of about 42% (above the usual 40% turnout for European elections), about 60% of the vote will be against the Ukraine Treaty.
One week to go. This scrapped the possible strategy of YES-voters to remain at home and try to sabotage the turnout-requirements.
The campaign so far has been a mess. The YES-vote fell back on accusations that the NO-vote is supported by Russia. On the other hand, the YES-vote was openly supported by the American billionaire George Soros. A leaked strategic plan showed that the Dutch government would try to seem uninvolved. But over the last few days, this has obviously been revoked because of the surging NO-vote.
What to watch for? The percentages will be essential. A NO-vote below 55% may be only effective in the case of a turnout of 50% or more. A lower turnout will definitely require a higher NO-vote. There is little doubt about the overall outcome, since a large chunk of the Dutch electorate considers this referendum a second chance after the result of 2005 had been stolen from them. Talk about chickens coming home to roost. By Pim Beaart, writing as “Hannibal,” is economics and politics editor of the Dutch opinion blog Veren Of Lood (Feathers or Lead).
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