As reported in last night’s news feed, 61% of Dutch voters who participated in Wednesday’s referendum voted against a closer relationship between the European Union and Ukraine. Our Dutch correspondent H. Numan sends this account of the little April surprise delivered to the EU by the Netherlands.
The Dutch jack-in-the-box
by H Numan
On Wednesday 6 April we held our first real national referendum. And … we won it! (So far, that is.)
Last year parliament passed a law allowing a consultative referendum. The law was phrased very carefully. We don’t want too much democracy, do we? One needs at least 10,000 signatures collected within fourteen days to apply for a national referendum. Once you get those, you have six weeks to collect at least 300,000 signatures to get that national referendum going. Those are pretty tough requirements for a country with 17 million inhabitants. Applying for referendum topics is limited. You can’t ask for a referendum on existing laws, nor laws being debated in parliament. Only on laws recently passed by parliament, and within the first ten weeks. The government can reject a valid referendum request for reasons such as national security. Even if a referendum is called for, and won (for example, the Ukraine referendum), a referendum is consultative, not legislative. The government is not required to honor it. It can reject it at will.
Very shortly after the referendum law was passed in parliament, the group ‘GeenPeil’ (No Level) was formed, probably or at least firmly supported by the very popular and biggest Dutch blog site Geenstijl (No Style). Difficult to place them in a political corner: they lash out at everyone. Wilders is a favorite target, but so is just about anyone else. You can safely consider them to be young and aggressive conservatives, Dutch style. That has nothing at all to do with UK conservatives or US republicans. The followers of that blog are called ‘reaguurders’ (bastardized Dutch for responders), and are almost all (+90%) staunch supporters of the PVV.
GeenStijl launched a number of controversial campaigns. Some successful, others not so much. One of their first actions was linking a migration database to the national zip code. Type in your zip code, and they show you how many minorities (read: Muslims) live there. It created an outrage within our politically correct society. The link is on the home page, in the right bottom corner. Look for allochtoon-o-meter. Another very successful action was an interview — or rather the lack of it — with minister for integration and housing Ella Vogelaar in 2007. She refused to speak and looked a like a fish gasping for air. This interview was so embarrassing that her party forced her to resign the next day.
A not-so-successful action was to set up an independent TV station in the Dutch media system. The idea was to attack the politically correct media in the same way as GeenStijl attacks the political establishment. It was funded with massive reaguurders crowd-sourcing, but very soon after they got started, they accepted the really big money by becoming politically correct. PowNed (colloquial for owned) still exists, but has lost contact with their main focus group. The reaguurders who made PowNed possible feel they have been (P)owned. PowNed was a GeenStijl initiative, but the two are no longer on speaking terms.
This time they carefully choose a target to call for a national referendum. The EU Association Treaty with Ukraine was selected. Why? Because it wasn’t a national security issue, so it couldn’t be blocked on that ground. It passed parliament the week before, fitting nicely in the required time schedule. And because it stinks to high heaven. In a nutshell: the EU wants to quietly expand a bit further to the east by absorbing Ukraine. The +2500 pages of the association treaty don’t mention full membership, of course. But it does give Ukrainians freedom of movement anywhere within the EU this year, promises military assistance, trainloads of money (about 190 billion, of which +130 billion is hidden away under different names) and possible provisional membership in due time. What does Ukraine have to do in return? Nothing at all. Yes, they have to reduce corruption ‘to the best of their abilities’, that sort of fluffy empty blabla.
I don’t think I have to mention the fact that Russia is less than pleased with Ukraine teaming up with the EU, do I? That fact, whether you approve or not, is extremely dangerous. I can very well imagine Putin drawing a red line, and, unlike a certain Mr. Hussein, sticking to it.
The treaty was already rubber stamped OK by the EU ‘parliament’ and all national parliaments. But … it states specifically that it requires unanimous approval of all member states. If one state votes against it, the association treaty is null and void. The Dutch initiative for a referendum was a rude wake-up call for Brussels.
So, GeenStijl/GeenPeil got busy, and asked for the required 10,000 starting signatures. They got them with ease, within a couple of days. The next level, getting 300,000 signatures, was much more difficult. But they did it: 427,000 valid signatures within six weeks. That meant that the referendum was on.
Getting permission to hold a referendum doesn’t mean that you can actually do it. Voting costs money! Part of it was given by the government, but grudgingly and by far not enough. A normal national election costs about 40 million. The referendum got less than a third of it. A lot of municipalities found — miraculously — plenty of reasons to reduce the number of voting stations, and pocketed the money. Most mayors stated that they expected a very low turnout of voters, so there wasn’t any need for so many voting stations. Corruption? No, of course not. We put that money into our municipal coffers. Not our own pockets! Some cities reduced the number of voting stations by as much as 75%. On average it was 25% less.
Another nice little trick to hinder the referendum was the voting form itself:
A clever civil servant designed it in such a way that it’s very easy to cast an invalid vote. In order to vote, you have to color the white circle in the black square red. NOT color the entire box. On my voting form (I live abroad and was able to cast my vote by mail a month earlier) it specifically used the word ‘box’ in such a way I had to look a couple of times at what exactly I had to mark red. On the form it uses the word ‘stipje’ (dot); in the accompanying letter they said ‘box’.
The polls consistently favored the no vote by a large margin. So large, that the government didn’t even bother to campaign. There were a few parties that actively campaigned for a yes vote: D66 (social democrats) for example did, and the Hungarian George Soros tossed a lot of money on it. Why did he do that? No idea. What do Hungary or Hungarian citizens have to do with a Dutch referendum? Not much, I’d say. Anyway, it did make those accepting his money look like they accepted a bribe. Joshua Livestro did; he was already a known political opportunist (or scavenger, if you prefer) before collecting his 30 pieces of silver. Now he is widely nicknamed Livestropop — a stropop is a straw man.
I told the Baron the day before the referendum I was really worried the government was going for 29% or less. By withholding funds and complicating the ballot form. In North Korea, a democratic poll needs > 99.5% approval ratings. Along the North Sea they need < 29.9% turn out ratings. In Germany they used to say: we have ways to make you talk. In Holland the government said: we have ways to make you (not) vote.
The next morning I was surprised to see the referendum passed. About 32% of the voters turned out, making it a valid referendum. 61.1% voted against, and 38.1% in favor. 0.8% of the ballots were invalid. (Which makes me look a bit like a fool worrying about that tricky form, right?)
When the referendum was called for, Jean-Claude Juncker, the El Supremo of the EU, threatened fire and brimstone if the Dutch had the gumption to vote no. The sky would fall down, Russia would invade, rainbows would disappear,
his job the EU would be in grave and mortal danger. That sort of thing.
As he couldn’t be reached for comments, journalists tried his trusty sidekick, Mr. Herman van Rompuy. Who, in the midst of the interview, simply hung up the phone. Talk about sore losers…
The EU as well as the Ukrainian government already said it wouldn’t change the association treaty in the slightest. It had already been passed by all parliaments, so they consider the case is closed. The Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte as well as all Dutch faction leaders said something different. Rutte said that the massive no vote requires some serious rethinking. He needs time for that. Lots of time. (At least as much time as forgetting the MH17 case needed.) All faction leaders said they would want their parties as well as the government to honor the referendum results. Including Labor and even D66. They both are firm supporters of that treaty.
Abroad I can report that responses are varied. Most agree that this was a really massive kick in the EU groin. A kick with a Dutch clog truly hurts! First of all, the Dutch PM is EU chairman of the day. Rather embarrassing that this happens on his watch. Second, in reality this is a vote against the EU. The organizers said so openly themselves. It’s a repeat, or a revenge, for the rejected referendum on the EU constitution which was simply renamed Lisbon Treaty instead of EU Constitution. Third, it paves the way for the British referendum on the 23rd of June. You can rest assured that Mr. Cameron now has a lot of work ahead of him. This will be an enormous boost for the no camp there anyway. Fourthly, ignoring this referendum or renaming the treaty won’t work this time.
I’m pretty sure that’s what Juncker and friends will do or try to do. We’ll quietly pass a law that agreements don’t require parliamentary approval. Rename the association treaty into the Ukraine-EU Friendship Agreement, and we’re done! Not right away, of course. We have to ‘rethink’ matters of course. Until something else replaces the issue in the news, and attention is focused elsewhere. A new terrorist attack, financial crisis or whatever. Then, on a rainy afternoon, they will quietly approve it.
Not this time, Mr. Juncker. That trick has been pulled a bit too often. The Lisbon treaty is still a very sore spot for the Dutch electorate. Left or right doesn’t matter. EU adherents are just as mad as EU opponents about the playing of that nifty little trick. Yes, also EU adherents. There are some left, and they are embarrassed by the utter lack of respect for democracy the EU showed back then.
Supposing the EU would do it, it would add a lot of support to the anti-EU camp. Not just the PVV in Holland, but everywhere. What our PM and the EU will do is play for time. Continue as nothing had happened, but pretend they are ‘rethinking’ the treaty. While at the same time effectuate that very same treaty as if nothing has happened.
The PVV supported the referendum, but from a distance. A wise decision. Had they jumped on it, it would have caused the referendum to fail. Lots of people would not have voted (invalidating the referendum) or voted yes, simply to spite the PVV. The PVV is the biggest party by far in the country, but also the most controversial.
The interior minister, Ronald Plasterk, already announced he is going to look at the referendum law more closely.
He doesn’t want something like this to happen ever again. It must truly represent the democracy we live in. You can assume some serious changes, such as 25,000 signatures instead of 10,000 to start with, 600,000 signatures within three weeks, rather than 300,000 in six weeks to follow up, that sort of thing. All in the name of democracy, for democracy is a great good that cannot be an idle toy for the people. Especially if it really works, and certainly not when we of the political establishment are losing our comfy positions.
To finish this essay, wallow in the irony of it: EU adherents like this one claim the referendum was not democratic, as only 32% turned out. Thus, 68% supported the EU by not showing up. (Official EU elections normally get a turn out rate of 20-30%; that, however, is perfectly valid and democratic.)
This referendum may not sink the RMS EU, but it sure made a big gash in it.
— H. Numan