An advisory referendum will be held in the Netherlands on the EU association treaty with Ukraine. As of July, Dutch law grants civilians the right to request such a referendum. The campaigners for the referendum have been framing the treaty with Ukraine as an example of the precipitate expansion of the European Union.
Original publication date: October 22nd
The Binnenhof in The Hague is a collection of stately buildings, which harbours some of the main political power centers of Dutch politics: both houses of parliament, the ministry of General Affairs and the prime ministerial offices.
The inner square is a lively passageway and usually crowded with politicians, government officials, policemen, journalists and a stream of day-trippers.
This summer, a novelty on the court was conservative intellectual Thierry Baudet, who has been seen prancing around the Binnenhof handing out flyers and persuading people to sign his petition for an advisory referendum. Sometimes in campaign colors alongside a Brazilian carnival dancer in a feathered bikini, but more often teamed up with Jan Roos, a former political journalist with a somewhat notorious status in Dutch politics.
Roos is the face of the campaign, as a reporter of the right-conservative weblog Geenstijl, a well-established but controversial Eurosceptic voice in Dutch media. They teamed up with less polemical parties, such as Baudet, president of the Forum voor Democratie (Forum for Democracy) and with the Burgercomité EU (Civilian Committee EU) both whose goals involve more democracy in Europe.
The Ukraine–European Union Association Agreement aims to forge stronger economic and political ties between the EU and Ukraine and has been ratified in most EU countries, but this referendum might slow the process down.
Although the Treaty doesn’t outspokenly say that it prepares Ukraine to join the EU, the campaigners point at Herman van Rompuy’s words in 2013: “To my mind, the future of Ukraine lies with Europe. One can try to slow it down, to block it, but in the end no one can prevent it.” To the campaigners, this sums up the ongoing inflation of the EU without “true” democratic mandate.
Ukraine, the campaigners say, is not ready for Europe as their internal affairs are not on order, for example when it comes to corruption. But more importantly, campaigner Jan Roos said, is the Ukrainian conflict with Russia, “which would be imported into Europe with the establishment of this treaty.”
The campaign is called GeenPeil, derived from the name Geenstijl as a means to make use of the latter’s popularity.
Tapping from Geenstijl’s traffic proved to be fruitful as they collected over 450,000 signatures. The new referendum law in the Netherlands states that for a referendum to be considered, 300,000 verified signatures have to be collected within 6 weeks.
They sent out a proud statement warning the “self-proclaimed elites” for the people’s opinion. Followed by the questionable comparison with political party membership in the Netherlands, which doesn’t nearly reach 450.000. “So in numbers, we’re bigger than political The Hague.”
That’s a signal, the campaigners say. “People feel like they aren’t taken seriously by politicians in The Hague, and by governments which prove time and time again that they’ll do the opposite of what they promised.” The first example, given by Jan Roos in Dutch paper De Volkskrant, is the Constitutional Treaty in 2004, when the Dutch massively voted against a single European constitution, which in 2009 “was pushed through after all.” The most recent example being Dutch PM Mark Rutte who earlier this year publicly stated that under attrition of fellow EU councilors, he broke his electoral promise of not giving a single extra euro to Greece.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs in The Hague has already stated that ratification of the Treaty will be halted if the number of signatures is confirmed. This verification process has been set in motion by the Kiesraad (Voting Council), which manually checks each signature.
Though even after confirmation, the referendum shall stay non-binding and could be left aside. But as Jan Roos says in different Dutch media, only a government with a defunct political antenna would neglect this referendum. “That would only prove that the government doesn’t mind the people.”
If confirmed, what will follow is a campaigning period, with a well-established no-camp and a yet unspecified camp promoting the Treaty. Voting would take place sometime at the beginning of next year. That is especially awkward timing for the Dutch government, as the Netherlands will take on the rotating presidency of the EU in the first half of 2016. A referendum questioning the EU back home would perhaps not send the strongest message to fellow EU members.