The Netherlands became the latest country to hold a referendum on EU-related matters last week. Wednesday’s vote on a trade pact between the European Union and Ukraine took place four months after Denmark held a referendum on whether to opt in to certain EU justice laws.
The decisive rejection of both referendums by voters is a wake-up call for the EU.
Ostensibly the Dutch vote was concerned with an association agreement signed by the EU in March 2014 at the height of the Ukraine crisis; in reality its significance was much more far-reaching. Far-right Dutch politician Geert Wilders welcomed the outcome as “the beginning of the end of the EU”, declaring that Dutch people had said “No to the European elite”.
The referendum itself was an innovative exercise in participatory democracy. The government was forced to hold it after a website garnered the 300,000 signatures needed to trigger a referendum under a law introduced last year. The referendum topic was relatively arbitrary. Instead its aim was to expose the democratic deficit between EU institutions and its citizens and to argue that people should take back control of decisions made in Brussels.
As negotiations begin between the Netherlands and the EU on a way out of the impasse caused by the referendum some form of political compromise is likely. One of the ironies is that, for all the talk of democracy, the Dutch vote may deny Ukraine a vital chance to move towards democracy as it strives to extricate itself from the shadow of Russia. But its main significance is its implications for the forthcoming British referendum.
Unsurprisingly Nigel Farage, who campaigned in the Netherlands ahead of the vote, welcomed the result. The Dutch referendum was the “hors d’oeuvre”, he said. “Ours is the main course.”
The Dutch vote offers a number of warnings to those advocating for Britain to remain in the EU. The first relates to turnout. While the turnout was low, at 32 per cent, 61 per cent of those rejected the deal, cementing the fears of ‘Remain’ campaigners that a low turnout could spell trouble for their campaign, as those who want to leave are more likely to vote. Many believe turnout could decide the result on June 23rd.
According to YouGov, the age profile of voters will also be central to the outcome, with over-55s most likely to vote to leave and younger voters to vote to remain.
It is not surprising, then, that British prime minister David Cameron urged young people to vote as he campaigned at the University of Exeter a day after the Dutch ballot.
“This is probably the most important political decision of your lifetime,” he said. “Whatever you do, turn up and vote.”
The other lesson from the Dutch vote is that the substance of the referendum question is a sideshow to the more emotive reaction voters have to the European Union.
The nuances of the EU-British renegotiation agreement thrashed out in February are likely to be forgotten when voters go to the ballot box.
The recent Dutch and Danish votes also open up broader questions about democratic accountability in the EU. The citizen-led initiative that sparked the Dutch referendum reflected a growing public disenchantment with the union, evidenced politically by the growth in support for eurosceptic parties. As the EU has lurched from one crisis to another, the response from citizens has been to retreat back behind national borders.
This is most evident with the migration crisis, as countries have closed their borders and east Europeans have refused to accept refugees. Resurgent nationalism is also apparent in other spheres, such as economics, as resistance to international trade deals grows in Europe and beyond.
In the US, even the economically liberal Republican Party is embracing protectionism in the presidential campaign as it seeks to reassure those voters who feel they have lost out from globalisation. It is against this background of growing isolationism that the British referendum will take place.
‘Out’ campaigners such as Boris Johnson have talked of a return to sovereignty. But this concept is anachronistic in a globalised world where Britain is already a member of multilateral organisations such as the UN, Nato and the G7.
While in many ways the EU was ahead of its time in envisioning a more globalised world based on a concept of pooled sovereignty, its job now is to bring its citizens with it, perhaps by addressing the democratic deficit that has long dogged it.
Whether this will be achievable before Britain’s referendum in June, however, is highly unlikely.