January 27th, 2013 • A group of leading academics writing in the prestigious national daily NRC this weekend demanded a referendum on the question of whether the Netherlands should become part of the European political union advocated by people such as Herman van Rompuy and Jose Barroso, presidents respectively of the European Council and the European Commission. Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans writes the idea off, describing it as ‘hackneyed’. At the same time a whole discussion has exploded into life on the social media, in which Europhiles are arguing that it’s not a referendum that we need, but political leadership. For the SP, however, the matter is clear. We have been for many years in favour of a referendum, because by means of so-called ‘economic governance’ a great deal of power has already been handed to Brussels without the people having been given any chance to have their say.
Europhiles, the species to which Timmermans belongs, feels threatened. The call in NRC can count on broad popular support and the last thing Europhiles want is to be answerable to the public. Because of this the gap between the street and Brussels is growing ever greater. The referendum on the European Constitution in 2005 led to heated debate and a sizable majority of the Dutch electorate vote against, not because the Dutch are anti-European, but because the idea of a Constitution pointed too clearly in the direction of a superstate, one moreover which would be on a permanent neoliberal footing. Following this vote the Constitution was nevertheless installed, via the Lisbon Treaty, without any further referendum being held. Things didn’t stop there, because it wasn’t long before economic governance meant still more powers being transferred to Brussels. Once again the public was not consulted.
The argument that we need politicians with leadership qualities is not only odd but also dangerous. We have had such politicians in history and we still have them, politicians who don’t listen to the people, but push through their own plans. Most of them we would call ‘dictators’. In a democracy politicians should certainly take account of what the people want. Of course you have to make your own analysis and not simply go along with the day’s prevailing mood. When the people, however, have been telling you for more than eight years that when it comes to Europe they would rather proceed with caution, then you have to take that seriously.
A referendum offers the major advantage that it would provoke once again discussion in the streets of where we should be going when it comes to the Netherlands and Europe. This is what happened in 2005, and a referendum now would be no different. The Europhiles would then have the chance to explain why they believe in a European superstate, and the SP the opportunity to explain the areas within which we want to cooperate with other member states and those in which we do not see the need for interference from Brussels. We could also make it clear that the power exercised by Eurocrats from the ivory towers of Brussels on the one side and from major corporations and financial institutions on the other must be contained.
Political leadership consists of having the courage to meet this confrontation with the people. Stand up for your ideas and be open over what has happened in recent years. Dare to take the voters seriously and above all listen to their arguments. It is not a matter of remaining in the European Union or not. Most Dutch people want the Netherlands, as does the SP, to remain a member state. We could, however, certainly hold a referendum on economic governance and the banking union. Let the Europhiles explain what’s so good about clipping the wings of national parliaments when it comes to determining their national budgets. Or why Brussels should be able to interfere with incomes policy, or pensions, or social security. Then we will be able to see that we can decide these things for ourselves in the Netherlands and that economic governance can and must be subject to a th0rough rethink. A referendum – bring it on!