Government evades responsibility to take its own decision on a referendum

29 September 2007

Government evades responsibility to take its own decision on a referendum

The government is acting as if the Council of State has issued an instruction rather than offering advice. But it is for politicians to determine what it is that they want.

Charles V, lord of the low countries, created the Council of State in 1531. Seated in it at that time were the highest of the Dutch nobility. In 2007 the Council of State is the most important of the government's advisory bodies, with the Queen herself at its head. The Council now consists of jurists of repute, but also of noted former politicians, most of them from the Netherlands' two biggest parties, the PvdA (Labour Party) and the CDA (Christian Democrats). Charles V sought advice from the Council of State, but then took the political decisions himself. Now politicians hide behind the Council of State's advice, avoiding difficult decisions.

The Council of State recently came forward with advice that has been used by the government as an escape route to get out of holding a second referendum on a European treaty. The Council concluded that a new referendum was not per se necessary. But this most important of the government's advisors did not also state that a second referendum can per se not be held. Both are possible. The Council of State notes on the one hand that the new treaty departs from the development of a European superstate. On the other hand this is, the Council says, for the most part a matter of changes of emphasis and style and the scrapping of symbols. It is for politicians to decide on which side this particular coin falls. The Council in addition lays a number of other questions before the politicians. Is a referendum the most suitable means of involving citizens in decision-making? What should the question be which is put to them? How are the government and parliament going to deal with the result of a referendum? In these cases also politicians must provide the answers.

By presenting the Council of State's questions as if they were definitive advice, the government and the governing parties are ducking their responsibilities. Looking through the Council's questions I have to conclude that the ‘no’ of 2005 has led to an improved treaty, but also that this treaty remains a major step on the road to a federal Europe. It seems to me logical that people should be asked whether the results of the negotiations which were the consequence of that 'no' are now sufficient. Just as it was in 2005, a referendum is an excellent way to involve the citizens in decision-making on Europe. The question could be almost exactly the same as the one put in 2005. And what the government and political parties do with the result is primarily for them to decide for themselves.

There is every sign that it is not the Council of State, but quite other matters that have stood in the way of a new referendum. Could it be perhaps that the government is afraid of the people's opinion? Or do they lack the courage to defend the Dutch people's decision in Brussels? Would the government perhaps fall if the Labour Party voted for a referendum? By their anxious ducking of the decision, the government and governmental parties have removed the people from the game. The majority of the Dutch population will now once more draw the conclusion that though Europe determines ever more areas of our lives, we have no say over it. This political cowardliness means that trust in European cooperation is suffering enormous damage.

(This opinion was written by Ronald van Raak, member of parliament for the SP and first publiced in the daily newspaper NRC Next, 28 September 2007)

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