Europe’s political outsiders aren’t only racking up gains at the ballot box. The threat of a British exit from the European Union and a looming Dutch referendum show they don’t need to be in government to shape policy.
The once doggedly pro-European Netherlands is set to offer an example with a referendum triggered by a motley array of citizens groups that could kill an EU-Ukraine trade and association pact. Ukraine isn’t the overriding issue: the people just want to be heard.
“First and foremost it’s a warning signal toward our own government and Brussels,” said Bart Nijman, a writer for the GeenStijl news and commentary site and one of the referendum’s initiators. He called the Ukraine accord “a starting point for a bigger question: how big can decisions be that the EU makes without asking the people first?”
Crudely put, the euro debt crisis starting in 2010 and the refugee crisis as of 2015 have kindled two strands of just-say- no politics. On the left, mainly in the economically shattered south, the revolt is against the dictates of creditor capitalism, a European counterpart to the Occupy movement in the United States.
On the right, mainly north of the Alps, the enemy has more than a million faces — those of the asylum-seekers from places like Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan who have crowded into Europe in the past year, bringing social frictions and terrorism angst. The closest American analogue is the tea party or Donald Trump’s wall-building conceits.
Both sides invoke direct democracy, broadening the appeal to the oft-silent majorities in the middle. The Dutch aren’t alone in putting policy to a popular vote: Britain, the scene of equally charged polemics on immigration, plans a referendum as soon as June on whether to exit the 28-nation EU. But EU countries have nothing on non-member Switzerland, the world’s pioneer in consulting the people. Swiss voters have rejected joining the bloc, and in a 2014 referendum capped the number of work permits for fellow Europeans.
The Dutch vote on European trade and political ties with Ukraine on April 6 reflects the increased restlessness on the opposition benches in what was once the EU’s heartland. The left fears the erosion of European labor and ecological standards, the right fears the hollowing-out of the state.
Marianne Thieme is in the social-justice camp. As head of the first animal-welfare party to win seats in a European legislature, she opposes the overture to Ukraine because it would let in more industrially produced foods, undercutting higher-cost, higher-quality European farmers.
“People are really fed up,” Thieme said. “Ukraine has a totally different legal system in terms of protection of animal welfare, labor and the environment. It’s a hard one for a trading nation like the Dutch.”
Some 49 percent of the Dutch were “fairly positive” or “very positive” about the EU in late 2009, on the eve of the euro crisis, according to a Europe-wide poll. Now that figure is down to 34 percent, thanks to the perceived costs of open wallets (to subsidize weak southern European economies) and open borders (to let in mostly Muslim refugees). That sentiment fell to as low as 28 percent in 2013.
The negativity is made incarnate by Geert Wilders, who as head of the Freedom Party has turned euroskepticism into an art form. Wanting Muslims out of the Netherlands and the Netherlands out of the EU — and facing trial in March for allegedly racist invective about Moroccans — his party tops the opinion polls.
“In the Netherlands there’s a tradition of both left-wing and right-wing euroskeptics,” said Simon Otjes, a researcher on Dutch politics at Groningen University. “These groups use different arguments and different angles, but they’re united in the resistance to the full integration of the EU.”
Dutch politicians who otherwise are barely on speaking terms pulled in the same direction in 2005 to defeat a referendum on a proposed EU constitution. The fact that European leaders, with the Dutch parliament’s assent, went ahead with many of the constitution’s provisions stoked the grass-roots fury that led to the passage of a consultative referendum law in 2015.
The Ukraine vote is the law’s first test. With campaigning just under way, opinions are tightening. Opponents of liberalized EU-Ukraine trade are ahead by 55.5 percent to 44.5 percent, narrowing from 62 percent to 38 percent in December, according to a poll published Feb. 1 in De Volksrant.
The April verdict won’t be sloughed off: a majority in parliament, perhaps seeing it as a trial run for next year’s national election, has pledged to respect the outcome. Whether that would stop the expansion of EU-Ukraine ties is unclear: the Netherlands could be exempted from the treaty’s political clauses, or a declaration could be tacked on that Ukraine isn’t en route to EU membership.
Official Dutch unease with Europe comes across in Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s bare-bones agenda for the country’s stint chairing EU meetings in the first half of 2016. New European initiatives are out and the government is even recycling the logo it used the last time around, in 2004.
A “democratic revolution” is in the works, with the Internet remaking society much as the printing press did, said Thierry Baudet, chairman of the Forum for Democracy and a co- initiator of the referendum. “Politics needs to change alongside those major events. And the EU is the most outdated of all: it’s the 1970s solution to a 1950s problem.”