To anyone paying attention to the tone of Dutch politics or the mood across Europe, the outcome of the Dutch referendum on the association agreement between the EU and Ukraine — in which 61 percent voted No — did not come as a surprise.
If elections were held in the Netherlands today, polls show Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom — equally opposed to the EU and immigrants — would become the country’s most influential political party. Wilders, of course, supported the referendum and campaigned for a No-vote. So did the Socialist Party (SP) and the Party for the Animals (PvdD), who differ on their political programs but share a dislike of the EU.
Last October, I was invited to visit the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs in The Hague. I sat in on a meeting with the task force set up to prepare the Dutch presidency of the EU. The mood was bleak. Civil servants discussed the end of the European project. The EU was “unsellable.”
I decided to try to cheer them up. After all, they had invited me for advice, not to suggest more doomsday scenarios. Citizens of the Netherlands, or any other country, are not obliged to love the EU or the idea of a common history or common destiny, I argued. Neither the government nor the EU should promote the idea of “feeling European.” People may not like the EU, but as long as they don’t go out of their way to actively destroy it, their feelings should not be more troublesome than a dislike of Brussels sprouts.
My remarks were met with skepticism — indifference is not regarded as a solution. The meeting’s chairman saw the April referendum as a dangerous occasion that could derail the Netherland’s EU presidency.
He looked very serious, and again I was forced to play the role of the optimist. This referendum is a joke, I told him. The best outcome would be that the minimum 30 percent turnout necessary to validate the referendum is not met. But should they campaign for a Yes vote? the chairman asked.
Given how several Dutch governments had campaigned for the EU in the past, it seemed likely that doing nothing may be a better strategy than actively campaigning.
We wrapped up soon after. I had disappointed the people who considered themselves the last of the Mohicans — those who could not stop loving the EU.
A week before the referendum, the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad published an interview with the initiators of the referendum, the Citizens Committee EU (Burgercomité EU). The group’s two men didn’t want to be photographed and one of them, the historian Arjan van Dixhoorn said: “We have just one goal: to destroy the EU. Or to drive the Netherlands out of the EU.” The group compares Vladimir Putin to European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, and the EU to the Soviet-Union. The interview, it could be argued, was hilarious.
But those who thought that the interview would hurt the No camp were mistaken. Politicians and activists who claim to oppose the mainstream political system and the elite are not turned off by a gaffe — they saw the interview as an intrinsic part of the No campaign’s charm and supposed authenticity.
The referendum’s initiators admitted that the referendum was not about Ukraine. This should have been clear from the start, but politicians campaigning for a Yes vote were still discussing Ukraine as if the people of the Netherlands would decide its fate.
Passionate responses to this referendum didn’t always have much to do with people’s feelings about Ukraine, and much more to do with their hatred for the EU, and their desire to once again give the “old parties” the middle finger.
Luuk Koelman, a regular columnist for Metro, recently claimed that the website GeenStijl (No Style), which takes pride in being needlessly offensive, had joined forces with the Citizens Committee EU to promote the referendum and to campaign for a No vote to generate more traffic to their website. Without GeenStijl’s active help, Koelman argued, the referendum would probably not have taken place: The site was instrumental in helping to collect the large number of signatures necessary to initiate the referendum.
The company that owns GeenStijl, TMG, also owns Metro — and the publication refused to publish Koelman’s piece. But Koelman’s revelations and the paper’s attempt to mute him couldn’t change the mood in the Netherlands. Hatred and disgust had already taken center stage, obscuring the intentions of the people and organizations behind the referendum. Once again, fact was less convincing that feeling.
A few days before the referendum I met with a Dutch ambassador to a small EU country. He opposed my idea not to vote — I had argued that voting would give the referendum a legitimacy it didn’t deserve.
The idea of giving people the opportunity to organize referendums to correct politicians is a good one, he told me. “I have always thought that people will act responsibly if you give them responsibility.”
But the Netherlands has a parliamentary democracy — every four years citizens can cast their vote in the general elections and correct their politicians, I countered. “This referendum is all about venting rage,” I told him. “Democracy should not concern itself with anger management.”
“I know,” he answered somewhat hesitantly. “Even some of my colleagues are now leaning towards not voting.”
But it seems that many did. To quote former Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt: “The Dutch referendum on Ukraine might be a joke, but one that could have very serious consequences.”
Yes, sometimes jokes have serious consequences. But we should not overestimate the consequences of this particular one. The rise of authoritarian or semi-authoritarian governments in Poland and Hungary is a much bigger threat to the EU than this Dutch referendum.
Some of the Dutch politicians who campaigned for a Yes vote should acknowledge that they need to stop sprinkling their speeches with covert and not-so covert language directed against the EU if they want to continue to be a part of it. They cannot bash the Union in order to please voters and then expect the electorate to understand that the bashing was purely strategic. Members of the center-right VVD, the party of Prime Minister Mark Rutte, are eager to push the anti-EU button in public debate. Their strategy seems to have been to copy the rhetoric of the Freedom Party.
I’m still moderately optimistic. A considerable part of the Dutch electorate — and keep in mind that a big majority didn’t bother to vote — may want to show their government and the EU the middle finger, but their appetite for real destruction is fairly modest.
This article was published on the website of www.politico.eu on april 9th.