Dutch EU no vote has worrying lessons for anti-Brexit campaign

Referendum on EU/Ukraine treaty brought Eurosceptics out to voice their discontent but pro-EU voters stayed at home

The Dutch have said no in another EU referendum. Asked to vote on an EU treaty with Ukraine that paves the way for deeper ties, Dutch voters gave an overwhelmingly negative answer. Almost two-thirds of voters, 61%, rejected the EU-Ukraine association agreement, while only 38% supported it.

Although turnout was low, the vote has some worrying lessons for campaigners who want Britain to stay in the EU.

Ukraine was only a pretext for the Dutch Eurosceptic campaigners, who forced the referendum without caring much about the result. But the no vote is damaging for the EU’s relations with its war-torn eastern neighbour. Although the trade parts of the EU-Ukraine association are already in force, and 27 out of 28 EU governments have signed the treaty, the final conclusion is now hanging in the air.

The Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, indicated on Wednesday night that his government would not ratify the treaty as planned. Ignoring the result could be toxic for his fragile coalition government, with elections due next year. The outcome is a huge embarrassment for the Netherlands, which currently holds the EU’s rotating presidency. Finding a way out of the impasse could take weeks.

The result is undeniably a blow to the EU, once again revealing deep pockets of disenchantment with the European project in a country that was one of the original six founders. Eurosceptic politicians have seized on the no vote as vindication. The leader of the far-right Dutch Freedom party, Geert Wilders, described the result as “the beginning of the end of the EU”.

Geert Wilders
Geert Wilders, leader of the Dutch Freedom party, said the no vote spelled ‘the beginning of the end of the EU’. Photograph: Peter Dejong/AP

He was quickly followed by the Ukip leader, Nigel Farage, who was in Amsterdam on Monday and greeted the results with a “hooray”. He said Dutch no campaigners would be coming to Britain before June’s referendum. The anti-EU mood, combined with revulsion for political elites, is undeniable.

But should supporters of the remain campaign in Britain be quaking in their boots? Not necessarily.

The result is not a devastating victory for Eurosceptics. Neither is it the “continental crisis” that European grandees feared. This is not 2005, when Dutch voters turned out in far larger numbers to reject the EU constitution. Just under one-third (32%) of the electorate turned out to vote on Wednesday, compared with a 63% turnout in 2005. The campaign was lacklustre and lacked the political charge of 2005.

Moreover, comparisons between the UK and Dutch referendums are valid only up to a certain point. The latter came about because a satirical website, GeenStijl (meaning ‘no style’), allied with Eurosceptic campaigners, managed to gather enough signatures to force the government to hold a non-binding referendum on ratification of the EU-Ukraine agreement. (Under a Dutch law agreed in 2015, a referendum must be called if 300,000 voters sign a petition in favour).

Many Dutch voters objected to the poll and disliked the organisers. Some described it as a prank or a hoax and decided not to vote on principle. The worst-case scenario for the yes campaign seemed to come true: people who supported the association agreement and were broadly in favour of the EU didn’t turn out to vote. For others, the subject – a 2,135-page treaty partly in force – seemed confusing and obscure.

Although the British referendum is also the result of Eurosceptic pressure, there is no widespread rejection of the poll itself, the stakes of which are high enough for the majority of people to take it seriously. British voters are being asked to make a much more straightforward decision that will have tangible – albeit contested –effects on the economy, security, immigration and British citizens’ rights to live and work in Europe.

Another important difference is that the Dutch government chose to take a back seat in the campaign, for fear of it turning into a vote of no confidence on the prime minister and his team. By contrast, David Cameron has been in campaigning mode since the moment the UK secured its limited EU reform deal in February – a fact underlined on Wednesday by the controversy over taxpayer-funded pro-EU booklets.

However, the UK remain campaign ignores the Dutch result at its peril. Any referendum can easily mutate into a vote on something else: asked to vote about links with Ukraine, the Dutch voiced their discontent with the EU.

And turnout matters. The latest Eurobarometer opinion poll shows that 25% of Dutch people have a negative image of the EU, while 75% see it as positive or neutral. But Dutch voters with pro-European views stayed at home, while those who dislike the EU were motivated to turn out. This is the nightmare scenario for the British remain campaign: voters who want to stay in do not care enough to go out and vote.


Jennifer Rankin in Brussels

The GuardianTramp

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